Murtagh and Ambrose brighten the day
Warwickshire 224 for 8 (Ambrose 84, Murtagh 4-41) lead Middlesex 207 (Dexter 53, Patel 5-59) by 17 runs
Into his 35th year, Tim Murtagh remains a redoubtable cricketer who consistently excels on grey and overcast days such as this. A slow and abrasive Edgbaston pitch did not provide much movement, but whatever there was Murtagh extracted it.
There is nothing demonstrative about Murtagh's bowling. His run-up is a little elongated for a bowler possessing no great pace, a gentle gallop only springing into action only in the final paces before he approaches the crease.
But he is unerring in locating a line just outside offstump, imploring the ball to move away enough to claim the edge of the bat. If it is a simple and unflashy method, Murtagh has claimed 587 first-class wickets without diverting much from it. Just last week he troubled the Australians in Belfast to give notice that his quality remains despite a year undermined by injuries.
"It's been a toughish summer personally - I've had a few injuries at the start and my benefit year, which has been a little bit of a distraction," Murtagh reflected. "I don't think too much has changed in the way I bowl in the last three or four years. I'd like to keep playing as long as I can - as long as I still feel I'm good enough to warrant a place in the team I'll keep going."
On this evidence, that means several years yet. It was a little curious that Murtagh did not begin the day: few bowlers can seem better suited to the 10:30 starts in September. But when he was entrusted to bowl, even with a ball 30 overs old, Murtagh kissed the seam and jagged the ball around. He was a little fortunate to claim Varun Chopra, whose rasping cut was neatly snaffled at gully by Sam Robson, but then settled into an easy rhythm, curving the ball late away from the right-hander and locating surprising and lethal extra bounce.
In his next two overs after dismissing Chopra, Murtagh accounted for Sam Hain and Rikki Clarke, both edging sumptuous away-swingers that reared up a little to the slips. Seldom can Clarke have looked more uncomfortable at the crease, exuding the air of a perplexed schoolboy confounded by Latin Grammar as he poked and prodded at eight balls from Murtagh.
Clarke survived one chance to the slips, and it seemed a mercy when the second ball he edged there was snaffled. Suddenly Warwickshire were 86 for 6, the complexion of the game transformed by Murtagh.
It is often drily remarked that Warwickshire's batting becomes stronger the lower down the order you go. Just as the indifferent form of the club's top four is a big reason why they never threatened to challenge Yorkshire for the title this year, so the resilience of the middle and lower order has ensured that relegation has never been a worry.
Few cricketers are more redoubtable than Tim Ambrose. After the end of a brief international career in 2009, he was overcome by depression and almost gave up the game in 2010, a year in which he only averaged 13.35.
Out of contract after the season, it would have been easy for Warwickshire to give up on him. But they recognised Ambrose's strength of character and qualities both behind the stumps and in front of them.
How their faith has been rewarded since. Since the start of 2011, Ambrose has scored 3,543 first-class runs at 36.90 apiece, and here passed 9,000 first-class runs in total. But even these admirable statistics do not reflect Ambrose's propensity for keeping Warwickshire afloat after the top order has collapsed.
This innings of 84 not out was a classic example. While Warwickshire threatened to be subsumed by Murtagh, Ambrose defended stoutly, bustled between the wickets and scythed anything short through backward point; together with the more austere Barker, Ambrose added 87 for the seventh wicket. Ambrose's contribution, by a distant the most substantial in the game, ensured that Warwickshire sneaked a lead and are the only side with realistic hope of being able to force a victory on the final day. Given the pace at which this game has passed, it was particularly unfortunate that 24 overs were lost from the third day.
"We've got a chance tomorrow to bowl them out and knock the runs off," Ambrose said. "We'll stick as many men around the bat as we can and see if we can make something happen."
At a time when the future of the County Championship is a matter of such heated debate - in keeping with someone who embodies the traditional virtues of English seam bowling, Murtagh favours maintaining the current 16-game structure - the day ended by providing an unfortunate reminder of the less attractive side of the competition. In light that was on the gloomy side, but far from unplayable or dangerous, the players were taken off as the day meandered to a deeply unsatisfactory conclusion.
"It didn't look too dark to me but once the floodlights take effect they always seem to get a bit nervy and generally come off more times than not. That's just the way it is," Murtagh said. "We have to deal with that." He was not the only one frustrated.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts