Energised Middlesex keep title glory in their sights
Middlesex 258 for 3 (Robson 77, Gubbins 69, Compton 56) v Lancashire
These two teams cannot wait for next week. For Middlesex it should bring a title-deciding duel against Yorkshire at Lord's; for Lancashire the hope is that it will bring merely safety from relegation, although that may only be achieved if Steven Croft's team gain plenty of points from both the current game and their last match against Warwickshire at Edgbaston. They cannot depend on other's failings.
In those two contrasting finales, one glorious, one rather modest, is told the multi-layered story of a season to which some cricketers are ready to bid farewell. The spectators at Old Trafford may talk fondly of summer's lease having all too short a date; Croft's players are looking back gratefully to the darling wins of May, without which they would be up the creek and paddleless. Perspective is all.
This diversity was reflected in the cricket on the first day of this game. After gritting it out against the new ball - only five runs were scored off the opening seven overs - Sam Robson and Nick Gubbins batted with increasing assurance and seemed resolved to make the most of Croft's very surprising invitation to have first use of an Emirates Old Trafford wicket which did not play the batsmen false.
By lunch Middlesex's openers had 93 runs on the board and had hit 14 fours, the majority of them through the covers when Lancashire's seamers overpitched. Croft used five bowlers in the first 24 overs and it was not just the openers' old-fashioned cable-knit sweaters that gave the morning's cricket an air of one of those Ashes Tests in the 1990s when Australia racked up over 300 runs in a day, England wondered from where the next success was coming and every week brought a new investigation into the state of the summer game.
It was also a day's cricket played on a flat pitch and a day on which the fall of each of the three wickets came as something of a surprise, even to home supporters. By its close, Middlesex will be pleased to have collected two bonus points and to have laid the groundwork for a total which will require them to bat only once in this match. Amid all the discussions of pitches and tosses, it remains true that the best team generally wins a four-day game which is allowed to run its course. Lancashire batsmen may need to be ready for a tough examination over the final two days.
Three breakthroughs were made, though, and the first of them in the afternoon session arrived when Gubbins attempted to pull a ball from Kyle Jarvis but caught it too high on the bat and gave a straightforward catch to Alviro Petersen at midwicket. The opener could not have struck the ball much less well had he hit it with a frying pan and his departure was a disappointment for the neutrals. He had looked the more convincing of the two openers during his innings of 69 and had quietly reinforced the case that the England selectors should be considering him for the winter tours.
Robson batted more fluently in the afternoon session and had accelerated to 77 when he drove all too loosely at a ball from Simon Kerrigan and only edged a catch to Liam Livingstone at slip. But this was a day in which Middlesex followed every coach's instruction to bat in partnerships. Once Robson was out, the baton was passed to Nick Compton, who had pulled his first ball from Jarvis almost savagely to the square-leg boundary before remaining runless for the next 29.
Eventually, though, even Compton came out of his shell by clipping Kerrigan through midwicket for three fours and then hitting the slow left-armer over long on for six. He, in turn, reached his own fifty off 119 balls before being bowled by Jarvis by one which nipped back through the narrowest of gates. Dawid Malan prevented Lancashire having more joy with the new ball and he was 49 not out when bad light ended play early.
As for Croft's players, one or two of them may have been wondering why they were in the field at all, given that they had won the toss. At times they looked enervated and a few may have been comforted by the fact that it is only 11 more sleeps until the end of the season. It was a curiously tiring day.
Before Lancashire's players can put their feet up, though, there is a lot of batting for them to do and that task should be eased by the presence of Jos Buttler, England's pro tem one-day skipper, and by the excellent form of both Petersen and Haseeb Hameed.
This match has already been made memorable for Hameed by the award of his full Lancashire cap, the presentation of which took place in the lunch interval. What may have made the occasion a trifle less exciting for him was being informed of the honour by Matt Proctor, the public address announcer at Old Trafford, rather than the Lancashire chairman, Michael Cairns.
Never mind. Hameed has been capped after 18 first-class matches and is the youngest Lancashire player to be capped since World War II, when records of this sort of thing began. For many home supporters, seeing Hameed receive his cap was the best moment of the day although the player himself may eventually remember this week for other reasons. Middlesex's cricketers may recall it happily, too. They are not tired in the slightest. Chasing titles keeps you fresh.