Lancashire threaten more frustration for champions

Middlesex 180 (Simpson 53*, Clark 3-36, Mahmood 3-63) and 156 for 6 (Malan 45*, Parry 3-40) lead Lancashire 309 (McLaren 79, Bailey 58, Murtagh 6-63, Harris 4-119) by 27 runs

Sharp calls for singles piercing even the gusts of wind and the noisy bowing of the tall, full-leafed balsam poplars; almost every run greeted with rattles of applause from a huddled crowd, their absorption in the cricket seemingly absolute; sunlight, yes, but warmth confined to pockets of the ground which the locals knew and occupied early. If this game has not provided salad days from anyone's Arthur Ransome summer, it has offered tense, fluctuating cricket and Lancashire are winning the match.

That it should be so can be explained by the home side's determination to prosper on a bouncy pitch and by the failure of the Middlesex attack to hit the tight lines and lengths that generally bring dividends on most surfaces. These contrasting qualities allowed Lancashire to build a lead of 129 runs, 87 of which were scored during a resourceful and uncomplicated ninth-wicket stand between Ryan McLaren and Tom Bailey. Then, as if clearly aware that the balance of the contest had shifted, Steven Croft's bowlers fell upon the Middlesex top-order, no one more so than Stephen Parry, whose removal of Paul Stirling and John Simpson in the same over helped to leave the visitors languishing on 156 for 6. Their chances now rest on Dawid Malan and the tail.

Parry's two successes followed his removal of Stevie Eskinazi for 34 with a fine ball which turned and hit the top of the off stump. Operating from the Grosvenor Road End and on a pitch he knows well, the slow left-armer has taken 3 for 40 and is no doubt looking forward to the final day of this match. Combined with McLaren's removal of Sam Robson for 42 and Saqib Mahmood's yorking of James Franklin for nought, Parry's successes mean that he and his colleagues may well inflict the first defeat on the champions in 21 four-day games, since they lost to Worcestershire in the epilogue of the 2015 season.

It is by no means done yet, though. Dawid Malan was batting very capably at the end of the Sunday's cricket and he will be accompanied by some of the best tail-end batsmen in the First Division. Middlesex's lead is only 27 but Malan and James Harris have already added 46 runs for the seventh wicket.

Yet the atmosphere of the evening session offered a substantial contrast to a morning in which any sort of Lancastrian advantage was nothing like assured. Indeed, the day had begun perfectly for Middlesex when a ball from Tim Murtagh, his side's best bowler by several leagues, brushed the edge of Shivnarine Chanderpaul's bat before the Guyanan had added to his overnight 32. In his next over, only the fourth of the session, Murtagh claimed the wicket of Dane Vilas, fencing loosely outside off stump and caught by Franklin at second slip. At that point Lancashire were still 44 runs in deficit and one imagines they would have settled for a lead of 29, never mind a hundred more.

Batting remained perilous. No boundaries were struck for 12 overs until Jordan Clark cover- drove Murtagh to the tennis courts. Franklin rotated his trio of seamers in the full knowledge that they represented his best hope. Then Clark cover-drove Murtagh to the tennis courts and levied three more boundaries off the next two overs from Toby Roland-Jones. Umpire Steve O'Shaughnessy's sun-hat blew off and bowled along the outfield like a paper plate. McLaren and Clark raised their fifty stand and took Lancashire into the lead. If the tension was not broken, the dynamic of the contest was changed.

It was, though, hardly a day for seamers and some in the Middlesex attack struggled. If well-secured marquees were buckling in the wind off the Irish Sea and the trees were raising a tragic chorus in the gale, one could have some sympathy for any bowler seeking a moment of calm in which to begin his grooved run-up. There were times when Harris and Toby Roland-Jones looked like landlubbers on a tilting deck.

Any such discomfort was seized upon by McLaren and Bailey. After Harris had removed Clark for a resolute 38 and Parry for 4 just before lunch, the ninth-wicket pair took the battle to Franklin's seamers, milking them for 44 runs in eight overs with the new ball. McLaren played yet another well-judged innings but Bailey's batting was something of a revelation as he clipped and drove Harris and Murtagh in the chill sunlight. He reached his fifty and secured Lancashire's third bonus point by attempting to evade a bouncer from Harris but still edging it over third man for six. The following ball was also short and it disappeared over the fence guarding the railway line. Harris dismissed Bailey for a career-best 58 with his next delivery but it was a joyless triumph. A lead of 129 was probably beyond Glen Chapple's fondest breakfast imaginings.

And Lancashire's lead immediately seemed even more decisive in the second over of Middlesex's innings when Saqib Mahmood's confident appeal for a catch at the wicket against Nick Gubbins was met with Steve O'Shaughnessy's raised index finger. At once the batsman began shaking his head. He returned to the Trafalgar Road dug-out, an area well-acquainted with Anglo-Saxon oaths and protestations of innocence, pointing at an area above his elbow. Strangled in the first dig and sawn off in the second, Gubbins has hardly had a fine weekend at the seaside. One doubts that even a trip to the Miniature Railway or the Botanic Gardens will give him happy memories of Southport. In twenty-four hours' time he may be joined in his discontent by ten other cricketers from Lord's.