Fraser, armed with pitchfork, seeks to salvage Middlesex season

Angus Fraser Getty Images

Middlesex 76 for 3 v Hampshire

It is an image more suited to club cricket: players, coaches and higher-ups helping to shift the covers, working together to remove surface water built up on the tarpaulin, doing what they can to preserve the prospects of play in a must-win fixture. The setting, Uxbridge Cricket Club fit. Only the individuals involved - a number of Middlesex players mucking in with their managing director of cricket Angus Fraser - gave you a sense that this was not your usual scene. But here were the County Championship's defending champions getting their hands dirty in a bid to save their Division One status.

Outground cricket has long been different things to different people. Right now, it is proving a nuisance to Middlesex. They started the round just 13 points ahead of second-from-bottom Somerset, off the back of a ridiculous two-point deduction because of a poor over-rate that, had a crossbow bolt not brought play at the Oval to a premature close on the the final day, would have been fixed. Even Hampshire, in third but only 26 points ahead of Somerset, are not quite out of the woods.

Only 31.1 overs of play were possible before the third and most damaging shower of the day ensure the outfield would take well beyond the scheduled finish time to dry effectively. By then, Hampshire had reduced Middlesex to 76 for 3, after a steady opening stand from Nick Compton and Sam Robson.

The frustrations of both dressing rooms were evident. Before the game was called off, players from both sides made their way to the middle to inspect the ends of the square. That they were muddy was evident to all.

"It's very disappointing," said Middlesex captain James Franklin, tracksuit caked in mud from an hour's graft. "The ground is very wet as it stands, even before today. It was only a 10 or 15-minute shower and play was done for the rest of the day. It's pretty frustrating for all concerned. I know everyone is trying their best." Of that there can be no dispute.

The groundsmen were on site as early as 4.30am, working to remove whatever remaining water there was on the outfield. Middlesex ensured they had more covers by raiding their two other outgrounds - Radlett (where their 2nd XI are playing Essex) and Merchant Taylors.

While Merchant Taylors would have been the preferred venue, the start of the school year ruled that out as an option. As for Radlett, investment in the square a few years ago was supposed to prepare the ground for first-class cricket, but the club still have reservations over the pitch. As for Lord's, the third Test was scheduled to finish on Monday, the day before this match began.

While Uxbridge have done their best, their facilities are not equipped to produce and protect a surface and ground fit for Championship cricket after the deluge in north-west London over the last week. At a first-class venue, with better drainage, a greater number of groundstaff and state of the art covers, we would have already seen the best part of six sessions.

"I don't know of too many other counties that play outground cricket in September," said Franklin. "Most of it is played in June and July. We've just copped it with the weather and we've been unfortunate in those first two days. We'll just hope we get some good, dry conditions overnight and hopefully we can still get two full days of cricket."

There were notable moments before play began this morning. Middlesex handed Max Holden his debut cap. He impressed on loan at Northamptonshire earlier this season with two centuries in 16 innings that produced 629 runs - the county tried to retain him for the rest of the summer - he was presented his cap at the start of the day and ended it with a single to his name.

With a number of England Test players returning for duty at other counties, Toby-Roland Jones was not available for this round, nursing a sore side which he picked up at Lord's in the third Test against West Indies. It is a precautionary move for England and Middlesex to ensure he is fit for the final two matches of the season.

James Vince, set to skipper this match with George Bailey away on World XI duty, pulled up with a hamstring injury in the warm-up and thus handed over captaincy duties to Jimmy Adams. Vince's replacement in the XI, the brilliantly named 18-year-old Felix Organ, was drafted in for his first class debut. Due to the lateness of Vince's injury, Organ had to be pulled out of a Hampshire 2nd XI match, meaning he was travelling to the match as his side took the field having opted to bowl first.

Adams' biggest call came early when he pulled Fidel Edwards from the Gatting Way End after a three-over spell that saw the Bajan lose his line, frustrated by an unresponsive pitch. It was also the end most affected by the rain and, as a result, was is a little bit of a slip-and-slide.

So Adams shifted Edwards to the Pavilion End, replacing him with bustling seamer Ian Holland at the top. The result was Nick Compton bowled comprehensively by Edwards, followed by Stevie Esknazi nicking off to an excellent catch from wicketkeeper Tom Alsop, diving to his right to take a sharp low catch. In between, Holland drew Sam Robson's edge which required a smart grab from Adams at second slip.

By 4pm, with the ground empty, Fraser was still out on the square, pushing a pitchfork into the ground to remove the surface water. As bitterly frustrating as the circumstances are, you cannot fault the will of the hosts.