Middlesex keep eyes on the prize as Toby Roland-Jones harries Worcestershire

Home batters made to struggle on rain-affected day as promotion race nears conclusion

Paul Edwards
Paul Edwards
Toby Roland-Jones kept the heat on during a damp day  •  Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Toby Roland-Jones kept the heat on during a damp day  •  Alex Davidson/Getty Images

Worcestershire 167 for 8 (D'Oliveira 44, Roland-Jones 3-32) vs Middlesex
It is the last week of the season and suddenly it seemed so at New Road this morning. Full daylight came late to the city and Middlesex's players seemed to be wearing an extra layer each as they strolled across the Worcester Bridge to the cricket ground. Travelling in the other direction, lines of commuter traffic took people to other, surely very different, occupations. One wondered how many earlier generations of visiting players, hairstyles different but concerns similar, had also walked from the nearby hotel and thought themselves fortunate indeed to be paid for playing the game they loved. It would have been easy at such autumnal moments to surrender to melancholy had not the Severn lay lacquered and still in the morning light, the swans cruised as though in formation and the cathedral been shadowed before a reluctant sun. "The doctrine of despair was never taught by such as shared the serenity of nature," wrote Henry David Thoreau.
Some farewells are more final - and more poignant. Nick Cook was given a guard of honour to mark his retirement from the first-class umpire's list after this match and it is also Ed Barnard's last game for Worcestershire before he joins Warwickshire. That, though, brought an end to the good fellowship. Important points are at stake around the country over these four days and for no one more so than Middlesex, who could be hailed as champions, congratulated as runners-up or dismissed as also-rans.
That latter judgement would be savagely hard on Tim Murtagh's team, who have won six and lost two of their 13 games, but if Glamorgan beat Sussex and Middlesex fail to win at New Road, there is a chance Lord's will be the home of second-tier cricket in 2023. Murtagh and his players will be reminding them that matters are still in their hands. Beat Worcestershire and they will be promoted, perhaps even as champions depending on Nottinghamshire's result against Durham. It would be a lovely conclusion to the season, particularly so for Toby Roland-Jones, who took three wickets on a rain-scarred day, one on which Worcestershire's 167 for 8 was a disarmingly decent effort.
Ed Pollock, on the other hand, might be rather pleased to see the end of the season. After making a 12-ball nought against Nottinghamshire last week, Pollock lasted 11 deliveries fewer on the final morning, his blameless forward defensive to Murtagh's first nut of the game edging a catch to John Simpson. Five overs later Jake Libby was gone as well, lbw to a ball from Roland-Jones that nipped back a little.
After an hour's play the essential shape of this day seemed clear. This is a not a poor pitch but it was used for the game against Sussex in April and Middlesex's exclusively seam attack clearly enjoyed bowling on it, especially as a couple of showers allowed them useful recovery time. On such days and on bowlers' wickets like this, even modest contributions assume greater value and careless dismissals greater censure. Jack Haynes batted as calmly as anyone for his 20 runs but then fished at a wideish ball from Roland-Jones and Sam Robson grabbed the resulting chance.
Azhar Ali committed no such indiscretions. Instead he laboured an hour and a half longer than Haynes for seven runs more than his young colleague before being pinned on the crease by Ryan Higgins. Barnard arrived to play his penultimate innings on a field he has always regarded as his home ground and immediately made batting seem simpler than anyone else. But each of Barnard's six fours were scored either square or backward of square on the off side and he perished a little as he had lived when he edged Roland-Jones to Steve Eskinazi at slip. Gareth Roderick, last week's centurion, arrived and left almost immediately when he clipped his fifth delivery off his toes and short leg Mark Stoneman clutched a ball that had been trapped somewhere near his armpit.
That gave Murtagh his second victim of a day on which Roland-Jones' three wickets had taken him to a career-best tally of 66 with power to add a few more in the rest of this match. But Middlesex's captain will know that the game is probably evenly poised. For while wickets were falling at the other end, Brett D'Oliveira, Worcestershire's skipper, was attacking the bowling where possible and putting his many play-and-misses behind him.
D'Oliveira was one of his side's best batsmen in the first half of the season and his dismissal, caught by Robson off Ethan Bamber for 44 a few minutes before the close, might yet be seen as vital in the outcome of this game. A few moments after his departure Cook, aided by his colleague Rob Bailey, took the players off the field. Cook has three days left in his career as a top-level umpire. Middlesex's cricketers, by contrast, have three days left in which to realise the ambitions they have nursed for nearly a year.

Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications

Middlesex Innings
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County Championship Division Two