Hard-working Worcestershire eke out rewards
Worcestershire 195 for 3 (Fell 75*, Moeen 54) trail Middlesex 309 (Franklin 135, Shantry 4-66, Leach 4-81) by 114 runs
Despite the loss of 16 overs in the morning, Worcestershire were able to maintain control of a game that, not for the first time this season, they have bossed for the first half. Even when it looked like Middlesex were about to begin a substantial tail-wag to take them beyond the 110-over mark, Joe Leach took three wickets in 11 balls to nip it in the bud.
The first saw James Harris trapped in front - the ball keeping a touch low - and the second came with the very next delivery as Toby Roland-Jones wafted at one he should have left well alone. Tim Murtagh survived the hat-trick ball from Leach, pushing a single into the off side, before Ollie Rayner inside-edged for another to take Middlesex to 300. Rayner it was whose eventual departure gave Leach figures of 4 for 81.
With the wicket of Roland-Jones, Leach moved to 35 for the season, surpassing his total return in 2014 in his sixth Championship match. It also meant that Worcestershire have now collected full bowling points from an incredible 35 of their last 36 Championship matches.
Credit must go to their bowling coach Matt Mason, a Western Australian who has forged a professional seam attack that pride themselves on not wasting deliveries. He talks about bowling fuller lengths and being brave as bowlers; looking to hit the stumps more often and bring in all modes of dismissal. "Prepare to be driven as opposed to cut and pulled," is the mindset he has instilled. Leach's spell was indicative of that.
Like all good coaches, he is self aware - "I'm happy to admit I don't know everything" - and has a strong desire to learn. He picks the brains of his contemporaries and those who know better, whether they are the bowling coaches of international touring sides or close company. Jason Gillespie is a long-term mentor of his and conversation between the two is regular and fluid. It is from Gillespie that he picked up an equation that he now uses as a guide for his bowlers: economy rate multiplied by strike rate, added to the bowling average.
If the bowler ends up with a number under 200, they are doing a lot right. All three of the seam bowlers in the Worcestershire attack fall in to this bracket so far in 2015 (Charlie Morris 191.42; Jack Shantry 138.95; Joe Leach 126.09).
"It brings in all facets of bowling," Mason says, "the cost of your wicket and also your ability to take them. It's a really good way of giving the guys something to focus on."
Worcestershire's first innings was a slow and steady affair. What enthusiasm there was around in the fold-up chairs after the rains had come and gone was slowly broken down in a mammoth evening session of 45 overs.
Daryl Mitchell took 33 balls to get off the mark, by which time he had already lost his opening partner Richard Oliver, who was adjudged to have nicked Harris' fifth ball of the match through to John Simpson. Oliver's reaction suggested it was anything but bat.
Mitchell was then joined by Moeen Ali, who was also watchful, timing defensive shots into the off side with great clarity and leaving lots. Three fours came off Harris, whose extra pace on to the bat allowed Moeen some substance for his stylish flourishes.
Faced with an over of Rayner before lunch, he displayed a bit of force to hit down the ground and then to midwicket to overtake Mitchell. Post-lunch, you could not have scripted a more Moeen display.
Scripted is probably the wrong word - "curated" would be more appropriate. Each signature piece to his game was on show; the timing, the placement, the execution. Even the singles were worth remembering. At times the crowd sighed with pleasure when an immaculate drive found a fielder. Even the shots for none were shots for them.
He moved into the forties with an indulgent aerial drive through a vacant cover, before going to 46 by top-edging a hook over the keeper's head. Fifty was brought up with a lazy dab behind point for his 10th boundary. An even lazier stroke brought about his demise as he chipped a slower ball to Roland-Jones at mid-off.
After the demise of Moeen, Tom Fell took it upon himself to entertain the crowd. His drives were sweet and measured; his judgement sound and unwavering. Middlesex "ooooed" and "aaaahed" in a bid to convince him that his off stump was not where he thought it was. But he knew better.
Unlike Ali, there are no flourishes to his batting but, at the same time, there seem to be no rough edges either. He knows his game, he knows his shots and he knows that his hands and feet need not to be too far away from his body to make the most of bowler error.
Even when he flicks the ball around the corner, there is little follow-through where some might exaggerate with a whip of the wrists in a bid to make it seem the shot was more Kingston, Jamaica than Kingston-upon-Thames. His innings was a microcosm of Worcestershire's work ethic and has them in a strong position going into day three.