Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
Surrey 154 and 105 for 3 (Burns 54*) trail Middlesex 268 (Robson 95, White 72, Topley 4-56) by nine runs
It has been a challenging time for Rory Burns since he brought up his second and most recent Test hundred in Hamilton in late 2019. He has made only three half-centuries for England since, missed three Tests with ligament damage suffering playing football, two to attend the birth of his first child, and two more after being dropped following a lean run at the top of the order.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Burns appeared to have the world at his feet, piling up 1,000 first-class runs for the fifth consecutive season as he captained Surrey to the Championship title, and his record in county cricket has been characteristically solid in the years since. Even still, he is a marked man as things stand, widely perceived to be the most vulnerable member of England's batting line-up and by no means assured of his place for the first Tests of the summer against New Zealand; if Chris Silverwood wants to mark the end of the Ed Smith era, Burns is an obvious candidate for a fall guy.
In that light, Burns' unbeaten half-century at Lord's on Friday evening not only kept Surrey alive in the London derby, but provided a reminder of his status as one of the leading opening batsmen in the country. Consecutive boundaries through extra cover off Toby Roland-Jones portrayed his confidence, one driven on the front foot and the other flayed on the back, and while Surrey still trail heading into the third day, things had been significantly worse when they were 20 for 2 and some 94 runs behind.
Burns made 4 and 74 at Bristol in the first round of the season and was harshly given out lbw for 34 last week on a road at The Oval while sweeping Callum Parkinson in the over before tea. His failure in the first innings - edging Tim Murtagh to second slip - hinted at a man out of form, but an unusually fluent knock in the second innings belied that suggestion.
The media centre at Lord's remains shut as building work continues on the Compton and Edrich Stands, and the temporary relocation of the press to the Tavern Stand provides an opportunity to watch Burns from side-on. The angle is a reminder of his idiosyncratic technique, and specifically his pronounced lean forwards as a bowler runs in, but while his method is cumbersome, his willingness to dig in was vital during stands with Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes that dragged Surrey towards parity.
During the draw against Leicestershire, Burns personified exasperation halfway through the morning session, baffled by the umpires' decision to replace the ball just as it had started to reverse-swing with one that travelled gun-barrel straight for the rest of the day. The ECB confirmed on Friday that Surrey would not be charged with illegally changing the condition of the ball following a review over the past week, and Burns may justifiably feel as though his side's push for victory was significantly harmed by something out of their control.
That notwithstanding, Surrey can ill afford to lose this game if they are to carry ambitions of finishing in the top two of their group into the second month of the season. Their first-class struggles since their title win in 2018 can justifiably be pinned on the unavailability of their England players for large parts of the summers, but they have close to full strength over the last two-and-a-half weeks, with only the Curran brothers missing.
Their biggest problem in this fixture has been their batting, which seems remarkable given the international experience of their top five. Hashim Amla bagged a pair, trapped lbw by Roland-Jones for a first-baller on the second evening, and Pope has twice made starts only to edge behind for a middling score. With the ball, they were disciplined enough to keep the scoring rate down to 2.65 runs per over, and while Rikki Clarke was relatively expensive, he is playing his first game of the summer after an injury in pre-season.
For Middlesex, the overnight situation is more precarious than it seems. Most sides would be confident of rolling through the middle order tomorrow morning before knocking off the run chase, but wins have been hard to come by over the past four seasons and a handful of poor sessions cost them against Somerset and Hampshire.
Their position heading into the third day owes much to the efforts of Sam Robson, who added 49 runs to his overnight score before he was trapped lbw by the impressive Reece Topley, five short of a second hundred of the season. He was given a life by Burns, who dropped a straightforward slip catch with Robson on 84, but was as strong as ever off his pads, flicking effortless boundaries through midwicket with gentle rolls of the wrists.
Clarke and his not-quite-namesake Jordan Clark took five of the six other wickets between them, with Robbie White chopping on for 72 an hour into the day and Roland-Jones clouting 46 not out to steer Middlesex to 268 all out. A first-innings lead of 114 was substantial, but despite two early wickets, their position is not quite impregnable.