Harris scrambles for vital Middlesex point
Middlesex 214 (Denly 38, Proctor 4-50, Chapple 4-55) v Lancashire
The first day of this match was dominated by points yet tinged with poignancy. One of these big battalions will be playing their four-day cricket in Division Two next season and this game is therefore something of a shootout, with Lancashire needing to make up a 19-point deficit on Chris Rogers' team to avoid their second relegation in three turbulent years.
When bad light and rain ended play some 23 overs early, Middlesex held the advantage, albeit that they had opted to bat first, a decision which bemused more than a few good judges, and then been bowled out for only 214 by a four-strong Lancashire attack in cloudy conditions.
On other days such a display might have left Lancashire securely ensconced in the best seats but the problem for the home side is that they need not only to win this game but they also have to take three more bonus points than their opponents. Thus, while no one scored more than Joe Denly's 38 on this gloomy Mancunian Tuesday when batting was rarely less than testing, the seven batsmen who made double figures all helped their side achieve the one batting bonus point which leaves Lancashire probably needing to garner 350 from their first innings.
More particularly, the last-wicket stand of 34 between James Harris, who was dropped by Paul Horton at slip off Glen Chapple when 4, and Ravi Patel took their side to that vital point and in itself comprised a small drama within the broader theatre of the game and, indeed, the season. Harris made 27 not out and his clip through midwicket off Junaid Khan will surely have raised cheers in Uxbridge, Northwood and many places far removed from Old Trafford.
As for Lancashire, they could simply be grateful they did not have to bat on the drear first evening of this game when Tim Murtagh and Toby Roland-Jones may have made very good use of the atmospheric conditions and a helpful wicket. On the second day they must hope that they can bat better than they have in most first innings this season; only twice in 15 attempts have they passed 350 and, as Paul Horton pointed out with typical honesty, they have one last chance to save their four-day season and if they bat poorly, they will be relegated and will have no one but themselves to blame.
The brutal arithmetic of this last game may seem harsh on Lancashire's seamers, and in particular on Luke Procter, who had only dismissed Sussex's Ben Brown in the 2014 Championship before this game, yet bowled very accurately to claim 4 for 50. None of Procter's wickets was more valuable than that of Chris Rogers, who having been dropped twice, played outside a fine delivery that came back off the seam and knocked back his off stump.
Sometimes bowling in tandem with Procter, Chapple also proved his enduring value to his side and prompted thoughts of the gap that will be left if this is his last game for the county. That decision has yet to be taken and that, too, only exacerbated the sense that many things, not only the season, may be reaching their ending this week.
But for the moment, Chapple's thoughts concern doing his damnedest to help Lancashire stay in Division One and his figures of 4 for 55 represented a sterling effort. And when Middlesex were 134 for 7 at the midpoint of the day, it seemed those labours would be fully rewarded. Instead, John Simpson added 36 with Harris and Middlesex grappled their way towards a modest respectability which may look more than priceless come the second or third evening of this game.
Yet for all the urgencies and alarms prompted by the importance of the contest, this was also the final match of a county season which has been filled with tense finishes and fine play. Even the awkward truth that so much of that good cricket has come from the other side of the Pennines may not have lessened the gentle autumnal wistfulness of some Lancashire members who, for the first time in recent history, were allowed to perambulate on the Old Trafford outfield in the lunch interval.
"Gone, gone again/May, June, July,/And August gone,/Again gone by," wrote Edward Thomas in his poem Blenheim Oranges and this Tuesday left one in little doubt as to the season. Early cloud was replaced briefly by light, almost tentative, sunshine as Middlesex lost three wickets in the morning, but by early afternoon, the sky was heavy and it was the floodlights which ensured the players' shadows were clear on the turf.
The obduracy of the Middlesex batsmen in such conditions may prove to be invaluable. There were no double-hundreds, such as Rogers had produced at Taunton last week; there was not even a half-century. But there are times in cricket when 214 is enough; this may be one of them.