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Bresnan, Hodd keep Yorkshire challenge alive

Yorkshire 235 for 6 (Bresnan 72*, Hodd 64) trail Middlesex 270 (Gubbins 125, Brooks 6-65) by 35 runs
Scorecard

He may have scored two Test centuries and played a part in England series victories in India and South Africa but, around these parts at least, Nick Compton is in danger of being remembered as the man who dropped the 2016 Specsavers County Championship.

Had Compton, in the slips, held on to the relatively straightforward chance offered by Andy Hodd on 22 off Steven Finn, Yorkshire would have been 87 for 5 and in danger of seeing their relatively long tail exposed. One of the runners in this three-horse race may well have fallen away.

Instead, the chance went down and Hodd, in partnership with the wonderfully resolute Tim Bresnan, added 116 for Yorkshire's fifth wicket to keep their side in the game. The extent of the dent put into Middlesex's Championship aspirations remains to be seen but it may well be that Compton has inadvertently done his former club, Somerset, a huge favour. A future in 'He should have gone to Specsavers' adverts is unlikely to provide much consolation.

Such a reputation would be harsh, of course. Compton played crucial roles in two recent victories against Durham and Nottinghamshire and may yet have a defining contribution to make here. But when title races become as tight as this - and this one is beautifully, breathlessly tight - the importance of such moments is magnified.

The concern for both these teams is that their excellence - and this has been a terrific game of tough, high-quality cricket albeit one marked by some significant dropped catches - is in danger of cancelling each other out. While Somerset do battle with a foe currently boasting the resilience of a butterfly, these two teams are bashing each other into a double knockout.

For victory alone is unlikely to be enough for Yorkshire. With Somerset seemingly on course for victory at Taunton, Yorkshire need to not only win but win with a minimum of four batting bonus points. They therefore have to score 350 (or more) within the first 110 overs of their first innings here. With 115 more runs required from 41 more overs and three bowlers with modest batting pretensions to come, much remains required of the two batsmen who will resume in the morning.

That Yorkshire remain in the race at all is largely due to Bresnan. Having bowled with skill and persistence to help squeeze the life out of the Middlesex batting, he then produced his highest score of the campaign - and his fifth half-century - to take his side within sight of first-innings parity.

It's hard to imagine Bresnan pulling out of a game like this due to weariness or lack of focus. Indeed, you imagine he may well report for duty with an arm hanging by a thread or nursing a nasty attack of the bubonic plague. While there were some murmurs ahead of the game that he was a little high at No. 5 in the batting line-up, he justified his promotion with a mature innings featuring much patient defence and some fine shot selection.

Six of his seven fours came on the off-side - a couple of meaty drives, a couple of beefy cuts and a well-judged reverse sweep the most memorable of them - with one laced through midwicket. Reflecting the improvement in his batting, he took his career average above 30 for the first time during the course of this innings and, if he makes the 100 his side probably requires, it will stay there.

He came to the crease with the three batsmen above him in the order having failed to contribute a run. Toby Roland-Jones, comfortably the pick of the Middlesex seamers, had defeated Alex Lees with a full ball and drawn edges from hard-handed prods by Gary Ballance and Andrew Gale. By the time the previously fluent Adam Lyth played on in Steven Finn's first over, perhaps slightly surprised by the pace of a fuller delivery, Yorkshire were 53 for 4 and in danger of seeing their challenge fall away.

Had Compton been able to cling on to the chance offered by Hodd - instead he seemed to go at it with hard hands - Middlesex may have taken an unassailable advantage in this match. But, as the sun came out and the ball softened, so batting started to look a little easier and the teams go into day three with the game all but even.

Hodd played Ollie Rayner especially well. Refusing to let him settle, he scored at almost a run-a-ball off him, hitting him off his line with reverse sweeps and punishing him if he dropped short. Even after he departed, beaten by a full one from Roland-Jones that he tried to force, Rayner was unable to gain much purchase from the dry-looking square and was twice thrashed for sixes - one drive, one pulled - by David Willey. Though Willey also departed before the close, Azeem Rafiq gave Bresnan good support to keep Yorkshire's hopes just about alive. Still, 350 looks some way distant.

"We just tried to take the game situation - and the table situation - out of it," Bresnan said. "We tried to focus on little goals: ten runs at a time. They bowled really well at us for a little spell and made it really tough for us. But cricket is about little battles and we managed to overcome that challenge and kick on.

"With the clientele we've got in dressing room we never say never. We've managed to win from some unbelievable positions this season and if we can get up to 350 we'll be in a good position. We've got 40-odd overs left to get 350, which should be plenty of time. We'll just take it in tens."

Yorkshire's bowlers were little short of magnificent in the morning session. While Jack Brooks, as accurate and whole-hearted as ever, finished with career-best figures of 6 for 65, he would be the first to admit he was the beneficiary of a sustained performance by all five seamers that never allowed Middlesex to score at even 2.5 an over. It was relentless in the way Test bowlers tend to be relentless: building pressure; forcing batsmen to earn every run. Even with little help from the pitch or the overhead conditions, they were so disciplined that Middlesex were never able to get away from them. Yorkshire aren't giving up on their status as champions without a hell of a fight.

Eventually that pressure showed. Nick Gubbins, perhaps mindful of Middlesex's sluggish run-rate and keen to gain at least a third batting bonus point, was drawn into a loose drive that ended his fine innings, before James Franklin edged a good one that demanded a stroke. Unsure whether to go for a third batting point or deny Yorkshire a third bowling point, Middlesex blocked for a while only to then give it away when Tim Murtagh slogged to mid-off with just 20 balls left before the cut-off. It may yet prove to be crucial. In all, Middlesex were able to add only 62 runs for the loss of five wickets in 26.3 overs in the morning session. Without Gubbins' century - and the dropped catch that allowed him a life on 22 - they would have had no answer to Yorkshire's fine attack.

"We're in a dogfight, but we're hanging in there," Brooks said. "We didn't let them get away and we're still in there fighting. Bressy has worked his way up from eight to five with his batting and he's probably been our best bowler in this game as well after coming in as fifth seamer. It shows what a world-class bowler he is."

The equation for Middlesex is, at least, simple. If they win this match, the Championship is theirs. The winning bit is far from guaranteed, though.

"It's nicely poised," Roland-Jones said in understated fashion afterwards. "We're trying to treat it as if it's any other game when it's obviously an experience you want to be part of and it's quite high pressure.

"You try not to pay too much attention [to what has been happening at Taunton], but of course you see it there. Our attitude coming into the game was to win it. If you come into the last game and dangle the carrot that if you win it you win the Championship, you take that. It's not a bad place to be."

It will probably be no consolation to any of the sides that fall short - and truly, all three deserve better than disappointment - but the quality and intensity of this encounter reflects wonderfully well on English cricket. Perhaps familiarity has invited a certain complacency (if not contempt) to England's first-class competition but if we still value developing Test players we will tinker no further with this great competition. The 9000 or so spectators who have attended over the first two days know this already; it's a shame not all those inhabiting the ECB offices just beside the Nursery Ground share their enthusiasm.