Middlesex bowlers hit back after Rory Burns-Mark Stoneman century opening stand
Martin Andersson nips out three as home side lose six wickets for seven runs
Surrey 146 for 6 (Burns 64, Stoneman 63, Andersson 3-17) vs Middlesex
Angus Fraser, Middlesex's managing director, said this week that there was "no vaccination" that could cure his side's early-season struggles in the Championship, but his seamers provided a shot in the arm in a frenetic 42 minutes before the tea interval on the first day at The Oval: Surrey's openers had put on 135, but a collapse of six wickets for seven runs left their batting line-up feeling sore.
It had not been easy going for Rory Burns and Mark Stoneman in the morning session. Burns survived three lbw shouts early on against Tim Murtagh - including two off the first two balls of the day, and one in the ninth over that Hawk-Eye confirmed should have been given out - and Stoneman played several false shots against Blake Cullen, but as both passed 50 early in the afternoon, Peter Handscomb's decision to bowl first looked increasingly ill-judged.
Middlesex's season has been brutal, with five defeats in six leaving them lingering near the bottom of Group Two and with any realistic hope of playing Division One cricket in September long gone. Their luck has been out, losing the toss in each of those defeats, but they have been repeatedly undone by poor sessions and need a win imminently to lift morale.
Their first-innings batting performance on Friday will determine whether or not it arrives this weekend, but their efforts with the old ball in mid-afternoon were a good starting point. Surrey's openers fell in successive overs, though neither looked happy about their dismissals: Stoneman was caught behind off Cullen - though replays showed it had hit his pad, not his bat - and Ethan Bamber trapped Burns lbw an over later, with ball-tracking suggesting it would only just have trimmed the off bail. When Sky bring the bells and whistles along with their cameras, there is nowhere for umpires to hide.
Burns' innings was his ninth of the season, and his seventh score between 36 and 80. The first two months of the English summer tend to bring feast or famine for openers meaning Burns' record is unusual. He is averaging a round 50.00 in spite of some bizarre dismissals and decisions that have gone against him, and yet the lack of a nerve-settling hundred and the presence of James Bracey as a spare batter means he goes into next month's Test series under scrutiny, ahead of a potentially career-defining year. "The big score will come for him: you can't get hundreds without getting to fifty first," Stoneman wisely noted.
Hashim Amla and Ollie Pope had barely begun to think about rebuilding the innings when Martin Andersson came back into the attack after two scattergun overs in the morning session, from which point Surrey lost four wickets in 14 balls. Pope's dismissal for an 11-ball duck meant that his average in first-class games at The Oval dipped below 100, but New Zealand's bowlers may well have watched with interest while quarantining at the Ageas Bowl.
Pope has been taking an off-stump guard this season, and explained the logic simply enough after his hundred against Hampshire three weeks ago: "I was trying to help myself leave those fifth-stump balls and if they wanted to go straight and bowl at the stumps, that's one of my strengths." It seems like a sensible plan, but the drawback is that it leaves him vulnerable to the nip-backer early on in his innings, as Andersson demonstrated by nibbling one in off the seam to trap him on the knee roll.
Ben Foakes, two weeks out from his first Test on home soil, fell four balls later without scoring, flirting at a ball that held its line in the off-stump channel, while Jamie Smith offered a low catch to Robbie White at slip off Tom Helm and Andersson pinned Jordan Clark lbw for his third in eight balls. Rain swept across south London during the tea interval, and standing water on the covers meant the day was abandoned at 5.30pm - though most of the 3500-strong crowd had gone home long before. Amla, not out overnight, was Surrey's last remaining hope.
Andersson - once dubbed the "Swedish Flintoff" thanks to his Scandinavian heritage - managed 154 runs and eight wickets in his first six appearances of the season but has been backed to the hilt by Stuart Law, the club's head coach, and nipped the ball at decent pace in his second spell. Their four wicket-takers were all academy products, which will give supporters some reassurance that the prolonged period of transition since their title win in 2016 has been worthwhile.
Fraser, a Liverpool supporter, spoke candidly in an in-house interview this week and paraphrased Jürgen Klopp's verdict on the club's mid-season wobble in the Premier League: "Confidence is a delicate flower that can easily be trodden on - it's something that can disappear very quickly and takes some time to build up." Middlesex's fightback with the ball meant there was hope of a late blossom.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98