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Gabriel's visitation heralds better times for Worcestershire

Worcestershire 79 for 1 (D'Oliveira 38*, Fell 37*) trail Middlesex 98 (Gabriel 5-31) by 19 runs
Scorecard

Like winning a hat the day after losing your head, Worcestershire's discovery of a potent overseas bowler has come too late to save their Division One status.

Shannon Gabriel, the West Indies fast bowler playing only his second game for the club, generated unusually sharp pace on an unusually green surface to claim the third five-wicket haul of his career in bowling Middlesex out for 98 runs in just 34 overs. Six of their batsmen were dismissed for ducks on the way to their lowest first-innings score of the season.

But Worcestershire were assured of relegation before this game. Despite the emergence of a group of highly-promising young players - eight of their XI in this match developed through the club's system - they have been unable to take advantage of promising conditions in several games and have lost 10 of the 15 they have completed to this stage.

But how different it might have been had they had the services of a top-quality overseas player. While nobody at the club - well, nobody in the club management; the supporters are quite different - has a bad word to say about Saeed Ajmal, the Pakistan spinner who played eight Championship games earlier in the season, the fact is that he is a shadow of the bowler he used to be.

Let us not be drawn into the debate about the rights and wrongs of the ICC's clampdown on bowling actions: like discussions on capital punishment, fox-hunting and Kevin Pietersen, it only leads to arguments. But since Ajmal was obliged to remodel his action, he is unable to generate the pace or spin he once could. Whereas he claimed 63 wickets for Worcestershire at 16.47 in 2014 - albeit in Division Two of the Championship - this year he has managed just 16 at 55.62. It may well have been the difference between relegation and survival.

To make matters worse, Sachithra Senanayake, the Sri Lanka spinner who played five matches earlier in the year and also suffered a similar fate to Ajmal, could only manage nine wickets at 42.33 during his stay.

It has left Worcestershire unable to press home their advantage at crucial times. Such as the match against Sussex where, set 247 to win, they reached 57 without loss before collapsing to defeat. Or the match when Durham recovered from 102 for 9 to score 198 and eventually win by six wickets. Or the match against Nottinghamshire when they collapsed twice, first from 207 for 3 to 283 all out and then from 172 for 2 to 210 all out. In eight of the first 11 matches, Worcestershire held a first-innings lead, but were rarely able to sustain their advantage.

While it is true that it would be unfair to expect overseas bowlers such as Ajmal or Senanayake to stiffen the batting, had Worcestershire had an alternative choice, the targets may have been lower or the batting stronger. In retrospect, their signing was a risk.

But it was an understandable risk. Worcestershire do not have the budget to compete with many of their rivals in the market for players, so they are obliged to take chances or select players who may be unfashionable for various reasons. Sometimes, as with Damien Wright and Shakib Al Hasan, that has worked well; this year it has backfired.

And whatever criticism supporters may want to aim at Steve Rhodes, Worcestershire's director of cricket, there can be no faulting his effort. Rhodes and his fellow coaches - Elliott Wilson, Matt Mason and Kevin Sharp - will be running coaching sessions throughout the winter from as early as 7am in the hope of finding, and nurturing, the next generation of players.

Recent evidence would suggest they are doing it very well. In Joe Clarke, a 19-year-old with a calm head, they have one of the finest young batsmen the club has produced in the last couple of decades - Rhodes rates him the best home-grown batsman since Steven Davies - while the allrounder Ed Barnard is not so far behind. In Tom Fell, Joe Leach and Charlie Morris they have three more fine, young players who should enjoy long futures with the club.

One player not yet secured on a long-term deal is Ben Cox. The 23-year-old keeper has enjoyed a season of impressive progress and here took a couple of outstanding catches; not least an effort diving far to his left to dismiss James Franklin. But perhaps unsettled by the development of Clarke, who also wants to keep wicket, or perhaps increasingly aware of his worth in the open market, he has yet to agree a new deal. As things stand, he is out of contract in 12 months.

"Relegation has been a tough pill to swallow," Rhodes told ESPNcricinfo, "but not as hard to swallow as it has been previously.

"Often, we went into games with a side containing one international player. And often, we were up against four, five or even six international players. At crucial times, that tends to show.

"But we have a host of talented youngsters. We have signed most of them up on long-term contracts and, the way we are going, I would say that in three years we should be doing very well and there can be no excuses."

By "very well" Rhodes means having a team capable of staying in the top division for a sustained period - they have experienced five promotions and five relegations in the last 12 years - and challenging in white-ball cricket. For a club with obvious financial constraints - their cricket budget is about half of Surrey's, for example - it is a worthy ambition.

Such has been Rhodes' success with young players that he will join Andy Flower - a spectator at New Road on the first day of this game - as an England Lions coach this winter and admits he is a much-improved coach.

"I've massively changed as a coach," Rhodes said. "You can do so much damage as a coach and I fear that, over the years, there have been some players I've just left confused. But in the last few years, I have tried to simplify things. I'm not going to let our rivals know exactly how we do things, but we have the best crop of young players we have had here for many years. Some of them have international careers in front of them."

Worcestershire took advantage of winning an important toss here. After the first session was lost to rain, they exploited conditions very well with Gabriel, in particular, gaining steep bounce from only just short of a good length. After Sam Robson, for whom batting looks an exhausting, unnatural business at present, edged one that reared on him to the slips, Dawid Malan was beaten for pace and lost his middle stump next ball. It was Malan's third duck in succession; a span that has occupied just five deliveries.

While Neil Dexter survived the hat-trick ball - he played and missed at it - he and Franklin soon perished to outside edges, before Nick Compton's defiance was ended when he was drawn into poking at one outside off stump. Gabriel then returned and, in a wonderfully quick spell, completed his five-wicket haul by trapping Ollie Rayner on the crease, ending James Harris' miserable innings with a fenced edge and having Toby Roland-Jones caught hooking.

Perhaps Middlesex will reflect that a few of their batsmen could have left the ball more often. But in these conditions and against bowling of this pace, batting looked a treacherous proposition. Their lead over Nottinghamshire in the race for second place - 12 at the start of the day - had been cut to nine by stumps.

In reply Brett D'Oliveira, cutting especially well and looking admirably solid, and Fell posted an unbroken 66-run stand for the second wicket to take Worcestershire to within 19 runs of Middlesex's first-innings total. It is too late to save them from the drop, but it does promise much better times in the years ahead.

Middlesex 3rd innings Partnerships

WktRunsPlayers
1st44SD RobsonPR Stirling
2nd4NRD ComptonPR Stirling
3rd4DJ MalanPR Stirling
4th48NJ DexterDJ Malan
5th6JEC FranklinDJ Malan
6th9JEC FranklinJA Simpson
7th5JA SimpsonOP Rayner
8th11JA SimpsonJAR Harris
9th2JA SimpsonTS Roland-Jones
10th72TJ MurtaghJA Simpson