Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
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Middlesex 293 for 8 (Robson 165, Gregory 4-54) vs Somerset
Opening the batting on the first morning on the County Championship season is a mug's game. In gloomy April conditions, someone is guaranteed the ignominy of being the first man out of the summer; striding out to bat wearing three layers in his first Lord's innings for 18 months, Sam Robson must have feared that he would be the unfortunate victim.
With four slips primed and ready, Craig Overton bowled full, aiming to nip an inswinger through Robson's defence, but he threaded the ball through the vacant mid-off region for four with a compact drive. It was enough to settle any early-season nerves, and Robson was soon in his groove, clipping mercilessly through midwicket whenever Somerset's seamers strayed onto his pads.
He rode his luck at times. There is no good time to drop a catch in the slips, but there were few worse than this: with Robson on 23, James Hildreth put down a straightforward chance at first slip off Josh Davey; on 47, Lewis Gregory drew an outside edge, only for Overton to shell the opportunity. The bitter North London chill made this a sore day for fielders' fingers - not least when Robson was in the mood to make them pay for their generosity.
Particularly strong through the leg side, Robson waited patiently for half-volleys and short balls as Somerset's seamers tried to find their early-season rhythm. He was happy to sit in and defend against Jack Leach, who got through 22 overs at an economy rate below two, but pulled, cut, whipped and drove fluently against the quicks.
By mid-afternoon, he had become the first centurion of the Championship season, and his innings single-handedly dragged Middlesex to a competitive first-day score: he scored more than half of their runs - bringing up 10,000 first-class career runs in the process - and the second-highest individual total was Stevie Eskinazi's 22. Jason Kerr, Somerset's coach, said that it was "even stevens" at the close but after asking Middlesex to bowl first and cloud cover for most of the day, they will see this as an opportunity missed.
For Robson, this innings served as a reminder of his talent, and in particular, his ability to cash in after making a start. The Bob Willis Trophy last summer was the first time since 2012 that he had failed to make a single hundred in a first-class season, but at 31, there is no reason why a strong run of scores in the first two months of this campaign should not put him back into England contention, nearly seven years after his last Test appearance.
His own fortunes have mirrored the club's in recent seasons, with his returns dipping somewhat in the years since an excellent 2016. He started that campaign in similar fashion, finishing the first day of the season unbeaten on 175; he could not repeat the feat this time, fending a catch to third slip against the second new ball, but will hope this innings augurs well for the months ahead.
"I feel like my best years are ahead of me," Robson said. "Last year was a funny year, not having much cricket, but I felt pretty good about my game in 2019 and I'm at an age now where hopefully I can put it all together with my experience, and keep the hunger for runs. I'd love to play for England again - as long as I'm playing first-class cricket, that'll be one of my goals - but there's a lot of work to be done.
"You're always nervous in a funny way - maybe a little bit more nervous this morning than usual, with everything that's happened in the past year. This is the first time we've been at Lord's [for a first-class match] for 18 months, and April cricket is always that sort of excitement with the first game of the year. As you get older, you know the vagaries of the game and just turn up and do your best - thankfully today things went my way."
Much as Somerset were left to rue their early profligacy in the slips, they fought they were back into the game admirably under the floodlights in the evening session. Middlesex had lost semi-regular wickets, rarely stringing together any particularly dominant partnerships, and Gregory struck three times with the second new ball to turn 254 for 5 into 281 for 8. Having spent three weeks in quarantine last month after contracting Covid-19 at the Pakistan Super League, Gregory's pre-season preparations were far from ideal, but his control of line and length was typically impressive.
Leach toiled away admirably, picking up the wicket of Robbie White - one of two taken by spinners across the country on the first day of the season - and managing to hold an end down throughout the afternoon session. Marchant de Lange, making his Somerset debut, leaked early runs - "trying too hard to make an impression," Kerr suggested - but dragged things back, while Overton and Davey were both guilty of straying into Robson's strong zones more often than they would have liked. As much as anything, Somerset's first ambition this week is to get out of the red, having started the season on minus eight points following the ECB's adjustment to their pitch penalty.
Both sides had tricky selection dilemmas: Eddie Byrom was the batsman to miss out for Somerset, having made 117 on this ground in the Bob Willis Trophy final last September, while Middlesex left out James Harris and Steven Finn, while opting not to pick a specialist spinner. With the weather set to intervene, neither call is likely to be crucial, but Middlesex's efforts with the ball on day two could define this game.
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