Middlesex dig deep to save status
Middlesex 214 (Procter 4-50, Chapple 4-55 and 341 for 8 dec (Robson 75, Junaid 3-84) drew with Lancashire 302 for 8 dec (Croft 60)
Middlesex survived and Middlesex deserved to survive. At the end of a day marked not by a frenetic run-chase but by the sort of determined batting specifically designed to prevent such dramas, the players shook hands on the draw at 4.21pm at Old Trafford. At that moment Lancashire's second relegation in three years was confirmed and Chris Rogers' men could look forward with hardly expressible relief to another season among English cricket's elite.
In truth, the draw had appeared by far the most likely outcome of this match for at least an hour before the fact of it was confirmed. This was so because every single visiting batsman did his bit in the final innings of the season to deny a hard-working Lancashire attack on a pitch which never deteriorated as some players had forecast.
Resuming on 202 for 4 at 10.30 on the last morning of the season, Middlesex added 139 runs in 62 overs on Friday. Just as significant as runs scored, however, was cussed occupation of the crease and everybody, bar Joe Denly, batted for at least an hour in the visitors'' second innings. Thus, wickets fell not in the clumps Lancashire needed but at the intervals Middlesex could just about tolerate.
A few home supporters may identify morning showers which trimmed 14 overs off the day's allocation as an explanation of the outcome. But most Lancashire fans will probably have more truck with the argument that it was the resilience of cricketers like Toby Roland-Jones, who batted 80 minutes for 34, or James Harris, who survived 135 minutes in accumulating 41 not out, which achieved the draw. Middlesex's performances since their first innings collapse on the second day at Taunton have been far removed from the "fancy dan" image some have attached to them.
Lancashire's most successful moments of the last day came either side of the rain delay when Junaid Khan had Eoin Morgan lbw with a fine delivery for 45 and then induced Neil Dexter to play the ball onto his stumps for 17. Dexter's crooked shot was one of the worst of the day and it left his side on 222 for 6, a lead of only 134 at one o'clock. Lancashire's star was never to shine so brightly again. Rogers' lower order batsmen saw to that.
At the same time, it may not be lost on director of cricket Angus Fraser that Middlesex are the first Division One team to win four of their opening six games yet end the campaign outside the top three. Without a victory since May, he may reflect that there is not much point beginning a Championship season like Linford Christie if you finish it like Julie Christie.
In particular their batsmen may have learned that runs are gained by application and hard work rather than resting complacently on reputations and status. Middlesex's batting collapses in high and late summer made for grim watching.
"I'm obviously relieved, and proud of the way the players have responded," said Fraser. "It's probably been one of the best four-day games of cricket you could ever see, the way it's fluctuated, and I'm proud of the way we've risen to the challenge.
"We've been put under the pump and shown a lot of character. That is maybe something that has been questioned in our side. It's a very talented team, with some really good cricketers in there. But we do play some soft cricket at times."
As for Lancashire, "the mood of this whole sodden place is melancholy" wrote The Beautiful South's Paul Heaton in the lyrics of Manchester, his wry tribute to this frequently damp city. "And everyone looks so disappointed, so, so sorry," continued the Bromborough-born bard and that applied too on this final day of a season which had begun with Chapple's men hoping to re-establish themselves among the powerhouses of the English county game.
Instead, the campaign began with a series of poor first-innings batting performances and a single victory, that against lowly Northamptonshire. There were too many weak links in the top order and the recruitment of Usman Khawaja in mid-season scarcely remedied matters. Some of the county's members have had enough and there is already talk of a petition and votes of no confidence. An EGM may be called.
Other members may take a different view. Certainly some strong views were expressed at a members' forum on the first day of this game. Everyone might do well to reflect that counties which tear themselves apart do not prosper or win things. Listening to each other and attempting to reach a consensus may be a wise course of action. We shall see.
Certainly Lancashire supporters did not desert their team in droves even as their relegation became certain. The majority stayed on the ground to applaud both sides off the field and curiously, one was reminded of the passage in John le Carré's novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy when retired intelligence chief George Smiley visits MI6's fomer Head of Research Connie Sachs in Oxford. He finds her pining for her former career. "I hate the real world," she wails, in Arthur Hopcraft's faithful TV dramatization. "I like the Circus [MI6] and all my lovely boys".
For even after the cricketers had left the field for the final time this summer, some spectators stayed in their seats, perhaps pondering what they had seen and reflecting that, for good or ill, all this was over for another year.
Similar scenes may have taken place at Canterbury, Leeds and Northampton on this last day of the 2014 season. And if followers of county cricket were, indeed, reluctant to leave grounds we may not need to look too far for the reason.
Already, perhaps, they were missing the circus and its lovely boys.