Jones the history boy makes Middlesex toil for the upper hand

Middlesex 327 (Robson 77, Gubbins 69, Compton 56, Kerrigan 4-80, Jarvis 3-70) and 72 for 4 lead Lancashire 259 (Jones 106*, Livingstone 56, Bailey 53, Roland-Jones 4-54, Finn 4-71) by 140 runs

On the day when a group of probably well-intentioned executives pondered changes which might push the County Championship to the back of domestic cricket's broom cupboard, a 20-year-old batsman with a sound technique and guts to share showed why it should occupy a precious place on the game's mantelpiece.

It is doubtful whether many of those meeting at Lord's this dreamily perfect Wednesday had a clue who Rob Jones was when they commenced their discussions. However, by the time they broke up in early afternoon at least four chief execs were surely keen to discover more about the 20-year-old makeshift opener whose maiden first-class century had frustrated Middlesex's title ambitions and given a major fillip to Lancashire's hopes of avoiding yet another demotion to the Second Division.

Those hopes may yet be smashed. Having conceded a first-innings lead of 68, Middlesex's curiously dozy batting in the evening session left them with a lead of just 140 and only six wickets in hand. Their best chance of winning the game - we can forget about a challenging declaration - may rest in their being bowled out for a modest score and Lancashire messing up a run chase when trapped between boldness and restraint. Such an outcome would leave James Franklin's side at least 20 points clear of their two rivals.

Faced with vague threats, the blessed County Championship is producing a climax to cherish, one which illustrates both its complexity and fascination. If Middlesex lose, the top three teams in Division One would be covered by five points going into a final week of the season when two of them meet and the other wonders if this might be the best September anyone in Somerset can remember. We may find that we can place a value on a city franchise but you cannot put a price on the Championship.

And as if to demonstrate cricket's gloriously different tempi, a day which reached its climax with Jones's six over long-on and a century celebration which would not shame an Oscar winner began as something of a slow burner.

The morning's cricket was very careful and quite marvellous. Needing 76 runs to avoid the follow-on when play began, Lancashire's batsmen had scored all but ten of them in 33 overs before spectators were allowed to amble on the outfield in the lunch interval. Some people seemed to do nothing more purposeful at this time than stroll around, perhaps pondering that they would be granted this gentle privilege on only one more day this summer.

But if Lancashire's progress had been stately, its pace was unresented. Saving the follow-on is a serious business, even at times like these when it is unfashionable to enforce it. Yet there seemed little doubt that Franklin would have done so had his seamers enjoyed early success. Instead of that, though, they were met with bats both broad and straight as Jones and Liam Livingstone took the score to 138 - and their sixth-wicket partnership to 102 - before Livingstone's unusually crooked stroke edged Steven Finn to Ollie Rayner's safety-deposit hands.

That wicket fell after an hour's play and the very ball after Livingstone had reached his fifty off 117 balls. His was a fine innings because it was played under pressure and against type; moreover it helped Jones set a Lancastrian pattern characterised by stern resistance rather than supine decline.

That theme was followed either side of lunch by Tom Bailey, who made 53 in 148 minutes during and put forward a fair case that his maiden first-class fifty might justify his being reclassified as a bowling allrounder. It was Bailey's edge off Murtagh which saved the follow-on 11 overs after lunch, although by then he and Jones were batting so securely that Lancastrian goals were becoming more ambitious.

Once the score reached 178, a brisk rate of scoring was added to simple crease occupation. Both Jones and Bailey looked to chip away at Middlesex's lead and it came as a surprise when Finn had Bailey caught at slip before inflicting the same fate on Kyle Jarvis next ball. That threw Jones's century into doubt but, on 94, the 20-year-old cast such doubts to the four winds in gloriously assertive fashion by whacking Rayner over long on. He had opted not to reach his goal in ones and twos.

Jones's haste was understandable. He had just lost Bailey and Jarvis and a few overs later he watched as Simon Kerrigan and Toby Lester fell in successive overs to Finn and Rayner. This left him as the youngest Lancastrian to carry his bat since Cyril Washbrook managed the feat against Worcestershire in 1935 - and on that occasion, Washbrook made just 49. But batting through an innings is all the sweeter when you have three figures against your name and Jones milked the moment for all it was worth. He watched as the ball cleared the fielder and then brandished his bat about six times. This is a cricketer who is so proud to represent his county that he walks round the dressing room wearing his Lancashire cap. It showed.

Middlesex's cricketers also showed what sort of people they are when Jones reached his century. A few minutes before that six Finn told him that he hoped he got to three figures because he deserved to do so; then when the brouhaha had died down, Rayner and his colleagues congratulated him. And all this respect was shown to a batsman whose innings may have denied Middlesex the Championship. This is still a lovely game.

All the same, Middlesex's frustrations on this last day were expressed in their batting during the evening session. Nick Gubbins edged Jarvis to Livingstone without scoring before Sam Robson, Nick Compton and Stevie Eskinazi all fell leg before to Kerrigan in the space of ten overs. If Middlesex are to win this title, they may need to regroup quickly.