In-form Clarke inspires Warwickshire
Warwickshire 338 for 6 (Clarke 93*, Barker 60*) v Middlesex
With talk rampant about whether Warwickshire can emulate the class of 1994 and win the treble, the first day at Lord's perfectly encapsulated the qualities that have got the club this far. Deprived of their premier batsman, their wicketkeeper and three of their most potent bowlers, Warwickshire yet again benefitted from the depth of their squad.
Once again Rikki Clarke was to the fore. Despite missing over a month of the season through a broken finger, he is quietly mounting a formidable case to be Warwickshire's player of the season. Blistering contributions with the bat underpinned the triumph in the T20 Blast; a Man-of-the-Match display at Chelmsford on Thursday lifted Warwickshire to the semi-finals of the Royal London Cup.
In the County Championship, Clarke acts as a high-quality insurance policy for Warwickshire. With pace and bounce, he has opened the bowling when injuries and England call-ups have necessitated it. And, just as when Warwickshire won the Championship two years ago, he has perfected the art of crisis management with the bat.
Pyrotechnics are Clarke's specialty in pyjamas: his power and reach, from his 6ft 4in frame, are well suited to clearing the boundary. With Warwickshire precariously placed at 158 for 5 after Jonathan Trott's dismissal, Clarke showed a solid defence as, unobtrusively, he took 93 balls to reach his fifth Championship half-century of the year. But, as the shadows lengthened at Lord's, so Clarke spied a chance to counterattack.
Clarke and the returning Keith Barker added an unbroken 133 runs at 4.20 an over. Crunching drives through the covers and marmalising anything short, Clarke scored at a-run-a-ball in the evening to close within sight of his first hundred of the season. It is not a prospect that daunts him. "Not after 14 years in the game," he laughed. "You just sort of get used to it."
And so Middlesex were left to reflect on missed opportunities yet again. After winning four of their first six Championship games, their season has disintegrated. They have not added to their tally of wins in whites, making relegation a protruding possibility, while their form in the T20 and 50-over competitions was abject.
This day provided a snapshot of the reasons why. Their decision to insert Warwickshire was a questionable one, perhaps betraying a desire to ease themselves into their return to the Championship: Middlesex last donned their whites on July 22. Warwickshire later confirmed that they would have batted first had they won the toss.
"We looked at the wicket and thought it looked a pretty decent wicket, the sun was out and a lot of people say you look up here at Lord's," Clarke said. "It nipped around for most of the day. Towards the back end of the day it flattened out a bit and it was quite easy really, easy paced. When you are put into bat to be in the situation we are now we are delighted."
Such contentment looked unlikely earlier in the day. There is nothing demonstrative about Neil Dexter's bowling: he swings the ball at a similar pace to Paul Collingwood, bowling a relentless wicket-to-wicket line. He performed with skill and control, bowling both openers with deliveries that moved late and yorked the batsmen before snaring Trott lbw playing across the line.
Tim Murtagh was similarly admirable. Yet such parsimony proved elusive for the rest of the attack. Toby Roland-Jones bowled six no-balls, and was particularly wayward at the start of the day while James Harris, recalled from his loan spell at Glamorgan because of injury to Tom Helm, took his average in six Championship games for Middlesex above 50.
Harris is a bowler who could do with some luck, but he suffered when substitute fielder Ollie Rayner spilled Keith Barker at slip on 30, just after the second new ball had been taken. It could be a decisive moment in this game and beyond: Warwickshire look well poised to secure full batting points.
They were also grateful to Trott. After an inauspicious start - he scored four from his first 41 balls, while playing and missing on several occasions - he struck seven fours in his last 25 balls. Like the rest of Warwickshire's top six, he reached double figures without going on to get 50. But Clarke and Barker were in no mood to squander their starts.