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Chelmsford, September 04 - 06, 2023, County Championship Division One
304 & 319/7d
(T:445) 179 & 147

Essex won by 297 runs


Simon Harmer takes five as Essex march on at expense of sorry Middlesex

Yadav impresses on county debut as title challengers seal victory in closing minutes of day three

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Essex celebrate as Simon Harmer claims his second wicket, Essex vs Middlesex, LV= Insurance Championship, Chelmsford, September 4, 2023

Simon Harmer's 34th county five-for propelled Essex's victory  •  Andrew Miller/ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Essex 304 (Browne 59, Cook 58, De Caires 8-106) and 319 for 7 dec (Cook 84, Critchley 65) beat Middlesex 179 (Porter 6-34) and 147 (Harmer 5-43) by 297 runs
Essex won't be denied just yet. With seven minutes left of the extra half-hour, at the end of a sweltering third day's play at Chelmsford, Simon Harmer sealed the 34th five-wicket haul of his extraordinary county career, to wrap up his team's sixth consecutive Championship victory, and keep them in contention for whatever spoils remain once Surrey have completed their own, high-calibre campaign.
This latest victory came by the crushing margin of 297 runs, while the winning moment itself came from a mildly farcical moment of body-on-the-line pinball. With five men round the bat, Middlesex's captain Toby Roland-Jones (who had been missing from the field for much of the day) rocked back on a pull through a rare Harmer long-hop, but Nick Browne under the lid at short leg stayed sufficiently upright for Adam Rossington to fling himself at the crease and scoop up an instinctive rebound.
Essex's fielders trooped off into the evening sunshine, cockahoop at the localised drama of the moment, and with an invested Chelmsford crowd acclaiming their efforts all the way. With 21 points and a day off in the bag, and a deficit of 18 now on Surrey with two games to come, it will still require a slip-up of some magnitude from the frontrunners to allow Essex truly into the running. But once again, they've done all they realistically can to stay on track for their sixth piece of red-ball silverware in their last eight seasons.
As so often in this golden era, Harmer was Essex's inevitable, insuperable menace. He ripped his offbreaks for 5 for 43, each of those wickets coming from same River End at which Middlesex's Josh De Caires had earlier completed a remarkable ten-wicket haul, as if to prove that an oddly fallow first-innings display had been nothing more than a pause for thought ahead of this pay-dirt fourth innings.
However, it was the heavy artillery of Essex's India debutant Umesh Yadav that cracked what passed for Middlesex's resistance - most particularly during a superb afternoon spell of 8-1-19-3, in which his deck-hitting attributes tormented the splice of a trio of left-handers in Mark Stoneman, Jack Davies and Max Holden.
Between them, Harmer and Yadav crushed Middlesex's resolve and left their opponents looking with rather more anxiety at the form of a fourth local rival, Kent, who've just secured the services of another India match-winner in Yuzvendra Chahal and, like Middlesex, have three matches left in which to vault out of the relegation places. On this evidence, it won't take much of an uptick in Kent's form to condemn them to an instant return to Division Two.
Set a theoretical 444 for victory, it took all of 6.2 overs for Middlesex's innings to hit the skids - which, admittedly, was significantly longer than Essex had been made to wait for multiple breakthroughs in either of their two innings at Lord's back in April, let alone Tuesday's first dig.
And lo and behold, it was Harmer who made the incision with his second ball of the innings - and the first that he managed to pitch. After Sam Robson had pumped a full-toss loosener through the covers for his fourth four of a high-octane stay, he pushed forward once again as Harmer found spiteful turn on off stump, for Dan Lawrence at leg slip to grab the deflection with a well-timed leap to his left.
If that moment got Harmer into the game, his second wicket two overs later sent Middlesex's spirit scurrying out of it. Joe Cracknell had no answer to a scuttling offbreak that ripped out of that teasing patch of rough that De Caires had found so bountiful on day one, and thumped his shin plumb in front of middle.
At 36 for 2, the only way was down, and Yadav was on hand to make sure the descent was steep. As Jamie Porter had indicated despite his first-innings six-for, the conditions at Chelmsford this season have not been remotely conducive to traditional kiss-the-deck seamers, and once the new-ball shine had been seen off, he and Sam Cook were limited to just seven overs between them for the remainder of Middlesex's innings.
Instead, Yadav's broad shoulders and decade-long experience as an India Test seamer made him the perfect foil for Harmer in the first instance, and latterly Matt Critchley, whose under-stated legbreaks struck two late blows as Essex's close catchers circled for the kill.
After going wicketless in a similarly tub-thumping first innings, Yadav pounded in from the Hayes Close End and this time needed just two overs to make his mark. Davies had been limited to 1 from 10 balls when Yadav cramped him on the angle from over the wicket, and he was attempting to draw his bat out of harm's way as he deflected a soft edge straight into Alastair Cook's waiting hands at first slip.
With his wheels nicely greased, Yadav struck again two overs later. Hitting the pitch hard from round the wicket, he found one that straightened just enough to flick Stoneman's splice, and Critchley at third slip clung on well, low to his left. That took Middlesex to tea on a ropey 42 for 4, and Yadav made it 55 for 5 soon afterwards, as Holden followed another tight line across his bows, with just enough seam movement to take the edge through to Rossington.
Thereafter, the contest became little more than a race against Essex's inconvenience of having to return for a fourth day's play. Ryan Higgins had barely begun his innings when Rossington spilled a stumping chance off Harmer, and while he and John Simpson were picking up the pieces in a 42-run stand, the media team were braced for the inevitability of a topping-up of tea-bags and a further print run of Ann's Pantry lunch vouchers.
But then, after an exploratory two-over spell in tandem with Harmer, Critchley was given a go from the fabled River End, and struck with his first delivery, a ripping legbreak that nailed Simpson deep in his crease for 32. That was all the encouragement Harmer needed to reassert his rights, and when two overs later he regained the Can Supremacy, Browne at short leg was in business twice in the space of seven balls, the latter a brilliant sprawling grab to dislodge the dogged De Caires. At eight-down, the extra half-hour was inevitable, and nine overs of twin-spin did the needful.
It wasn't simply Essex's bowling that sealed the spoils, however. Across 81 overs of the second innings, their own batting was never anything less than a cut above, whether it was the bloodless redoubtability of Alastair Cook's six-hour 84, or the certainty with which their tempo accelerated through the afternoon session, with Critchley's run-a-ball 65 providing the panache required to set up the declaration, shortly after 2pm.
For the day's first hour, Essex's progress was so serene - as Cook and Tom Westley picked off 114 untroubled runs for the second wicket - the main concern around the County Ground was that a previously tricky surface had gone to sleep in the sun, and that the act of prising out ten more Middlesex wickets would be a more torrid challenge second-time around.
And yet, as their own bowlers would rediscover soon enough, there remained just enough to keep an honest toiler interested. On 47, Westley wafted across the line at Ethan Bamber and was pinned lbw by a hint of nip back off the seam, and three overs later, Cook too was gone - prised out by the lesser-spotted legbreaks of Robson, no less, who found some significant grip from round the wicket, to follow Cook as he made room to cut and find a feathered edge to the keeper.
Cook's response was notably animated, as he beat the turf with his bat in annoyance, and trooped off for 84 - his second significant contribution to the cause, but frustratingly short of what would have been his 75th first-class hundred.
As he left the pitch, Cook waved coyly to a crowd that rose with an air of pre-emptive valediction. Essex do have one last home match looming against Hampshire in a fortnight's time, but with his contract running down at the end of the season and his 40th year approaching in 2024, rumours are beginning to circulate. Only time, it seems, will tell.
And with Cook went the end of Act One of the third day's play. Dan Lawrence's Chelmsford departure is already a done deal, of course, but as he and Critchley came together in a near-run-a-ball stand of 57 in ten overs, the sound of cranking gears was unmistakeable.
After reverse-sweeping De Caires to bring up the 50 partnership, Lawrence holed out to mid-off one over later, to give De Caires his ninth of the match but his first in 25 overs of even harder yakka that he'd endured on the first two days. But he didn't have to wait quite so long for his tenth, as Paul Walter - targeting the short cover boundary - reverse-swept his fourth ball and nailed it straight into the waiting palms of Davies set back on the rope.
That, however, was the absolute limit of Middlesex's joy in this match. As had seemed inevitable from the very outset of the contest, anything an apprentice could do on this deck, Chelmsford's master spinner was sure to outmatch in the end.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket

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County Championship Division One