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Tom Lawes steps up as Surrey avoid complacency against Northants

Karun Nair's unbeaten fifty underpins Northants hopes after Hassan Azad falls for 48

Tom Lawes ran through the Somerset top order, Somerset vs Surrey, County Championship, Taunton, July 25. 2023

Tom Lawes stepped up with three wickets  •  Getty Images

Northamptonshire 171 for 6 (Nair 51*, Azad 48, Lawes 3-47) vs Surrey
Even with an 18-point lead at the top of Division One and facing bottom-of-the-table Northamptonshire at home, Surrey arrived into this penultimate match of the season wary of complacency. At the Kia Oval, in weather confirming summer was really over, it was Tom Lawes, one of their own, who stepped up to maintain standards.
Northamptonshire closed on 171 for the loss of 6, Lawes' nagging, surprisingly brisk seamers responsible for half of them. A simple equation is two wins give Surrey the title, which is all they care about. The fine print for the rest of us is that victory with three bonus points puts the onus on second-place Essex to win to keep the County Championship alive. Across a bitty 63.4 overs, when the usually reliable senior figures were a little off with the ball, Lawes' 3 for 47 has not only helped bag two of those bonus points but moved the game along with rain set to play its unwelcome part for the rest of the week.
Rory Burns won his first toss in five, inserting the visitors in as grim conditions as possible without being bad enough to prevent play from starting on time. The skies were overcast enough to require the floodlights at full beam at 10:30am. And the sharp winds that persisted throughout the day were fierce enough for the flags sitting atop the Micky Stewart Pavilion to be brought down.
At another time, Burns would have needed to reinforce his hairband before heading out onto the field. Alas, the flowing 14-inch locks are no more, shorn for a good cause to make a natural wig for The Little Princess Trust, a charity which provides real hair wigs, free of charge, to children and young people who have lost their own hair through cancer treatment or to other conditions.
Given the climes, and prolific new-ball duo of Kemar Roach and Dan Worrall going up against a batting line-up that has only managed four bonus points all season, this was surely going one way. And yet 13 overs in, neither had caused Hassan Azad or Emilio Gay any discomfort, barring a delivery from Worrall that leapt off a length and clocked Azad on the jaw of his grille.
At 29 for no loss, both left-handed openers would have been satisfied with their early work. But Surrey are not where they are because of the work of just two bowlers. Enter Jordan Clark, who needed just four deliveries to move to the top of the club's wicket-taking charts with a 47th dismissal of the season as Gay flicked down the leg side to Ben Foakes.
Azad, however, trucked on, typically barnacle-like in approach. He has long been about accumulation through survival, but that throwback approach has been found wanting this season, as per the average of 16.15 from 14 innings heading into this match. Nevertheless, on a day like today, stickability was the name of the game and, together with Karun Nair - one of two Indian batters in this match after Sai Sudharsan was handed a debut in place of Jamie Smith away on England duty - compiled a 55-run stand from 24.2 overs.
There was a whiff of general sadness when Azad fell, short-arming Worrall behind with an apologetic pull, wary of the man lurking around the corner at leg gully. Not for the first time this season, the short-ball did for him, two shy of a second half-century of the season.
Nair, meanwhile, was able to bring up his own in 108 deliveries, and will recommence his innings on Tuesday thanks largely to a life given to him by Jamie Overton when on 11, off the bowling of Worrall. That is likely to be more stop-start than day one, which featured just one shower stopping play for two hours from 1:30pm.
Nevertheless, a relatively frustrating day for Surrey carried cheer beyond the wickets. Overton pulled up five deliveries into his second over with what looked like a twinge to his left groin. In the immediacy, their depth covered for the loss as he walked off and Burns brought himself on to send the final delivery down the leg side. Lawes plugged the gap from the Vauxhall End, eventually prising out Luke Procter with a length delivery that lifted and left the visiting skipper.
By then, Overton had returned to the field, taking a regulation catch at second slip. And just to reiterate his bloody-mindedness, he was back bowling by the 57th over, rapping Saif Zaib on the hand before nicking him off two deliveries later with a full ball that arched away late.
It was the second of three dismissals in 25 deliveries, sandwiched between Lawes removing Keogh - another catch for Overton - and yorking Lewis McManus. Overton should have had a third when Justin Broad fended some extra bounce behind, which Foakes could only tip over the bar.
At 5:22pm, bad light stopped play and no doubt Surrey were rueing what looked set to be a procession of the remaining Northants wickets to make up for the early, Zaib-led resistance as they walked off. Remarkably, the clouds had parted enough to allow through what remained of the sun to give us a 5:38pm restart, with an optimistic 12 overs remaining.
Six minutes later, back came the clouds and off went the players. The only play of note was a ninth boundary to Nair, driven through extra cover, to take him to a second half-century for Northants.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo