Worcestershire 45 for 2 trail Middlesex 327 for 7 dec (Denly 134*) by 282 runs
If Middlesex and Worcestershire find themselves shoulder to shoulder near the bottom of the table in a few months' time, battling each other to avoid relegation, then Joe Denly's unbeaten hundred - his first for his new county - could turn out to be the cigarette paper inserted between the two sides. Denly batted with composure and application to add exactly 100 to his overnight score as Middlesex amassed their highest total of the season so far and denied Worcestershire a third bowling bonus point while they were at it.
Middlesex claimed two wickets in the gloaming after Chris Rogers' declaration shortly into the evening session but it was the performance of Denly, recruited from Kent over the winter, that stood out. With a draw the likeliest outcome, his performance, as a barometer of how well Middlesex may fare in Division One, was as valuable as the three batting points it helped to secure.
Denly was once groomed as an England opener but lost his way after making a handful of one-day appearances in 2009. Seeking a fresh start, he swapped the tranquillity of Canterbury for the mildly grittier urban milieu of St Johns Wood and this innings suggested he may come again at international level, with England not exactly overrun with options as the top of the order. Having the captain, Andrew Strauss, as a team-mate won't do his chances any harm, either.
"It was nice to spend some time out in the middle and get that first hundred under the belt, my first hundred at Lord's as well, so I'm delighted," Denly said. "It's been a while [since being involved with England]. If I'm scoring runs consistently then hopefully they might take a bit of notice but it's only one knock so far, I've just got to focus on doing it week in week out and scoring big hundreds."
As it is, Middlesex are comfortably ensconced in the middle of the standings, while Worcestershire bob alongside Durham and Lancashire, the champions, near the bottom. The latter two were being talked of in title-challenging terms at the start of the season and both will expect their fortunes to improve but Worcestershire, having lost their opening six games last year, are familiar with the art of escapology.
That Middlesex didn't assert even greater supremacy in this match was largely down to Alan Richardson, once of NW8 himself, who claimed his third five-wicket haul of the season to take his overall tally to 24. The game may not have been the biggest show in town, with the FA Cup final taking place at Wembley just a few miles across north London, but then Richardson has never needed the incentive of the spotlight in order to perform. He was also unsentimental about his wicket-taking return.
"I've got quite a few old clubs," he said, with wry a smile. "It's a fantastic place to come back to, the home of cricket, I had five great years here - whether everyone else thought they were great I don't know but I certainly enjoyed them. To get five wickets is always nice, whatever ground it is.
"I think the wicket has got a little bit in it, if anything we bowled pretty poorly yesterday. We've given ourselves a bit of a mountain to climb, I don't think it's a 327 for seven wicket. So we've put ourselves under a bit of pressure."
Despite more capricious weather in the morning, Denly remained unflappable at the crease. He got forward well and was particularly strong driving down the ground though, like all the batsmen, he had one or two uncomfortable moments against Richardson. After a generally sedate knock, punctuated by occasional boundaries, he moved from 86 to 101 from six balls, timing Richard Jones off his pads before dispatching another on drive down the ground to bring the members to their feet.
That milestone seemed a long way off after Richardson had taken two in two balls to leave Middlesex on 172 for 5 but Denly combined with first John Simpson and then Gareth Berg to regain the initiative. Berg scratched around like a cooped up tom cat at the start of his innings, was dropped in the gully and rarely looked secure but grubbed his way to 36 out of a partnership of 88 with Denly, as Middlesex took the opportunity either side of a prolonged break for rain to restore some faith in their batting order.
Denly pulled Richardson into the stands to bring up the 300 and the declaration came shortly after, as Middlesex seemingly dithered over whether to pursue a fourth batting point or not. Strauss then dropped Michael Klinger on nought, repaying the favour from yesterday. But as the clouds drew in, Worcestershire's Australian opener was dismissed and Strauss' could walk off in a sunnier frame of mind.