Pieter Malan fifty keeps Middlesex fighting for promotion place

Murtagh's men hopeful after ending bleak day 79 runs behind Worcestershire with eight wickets in hand

Paul Edwards
Paul Edwards
Tim Murtagh's men have reason to hope for promotion  •  Getty Images

Tim Murtagh's men have reason to hope for promotion  •  Getty Images

Middlesex 146 for 2 (Malan 68*, Holden 35*) trail Worcestershire 225 (Roland-Jones 4-50, Higgins 3-52 ) by 79 runs
In simple truth this was a scrappy, stop-start, on-off mess of a day at New Road. There were at least three interruptions - forgive me, after a while they merge together - and on one occasion umpires Nick Cook and Rob Bailey decided to take the players off, only to keep them on twenty seconds later when the sun reappeared from behind a cloud. Any spectator not versed in the game or understanding what was at stake might have thought they had wandered into an asylum; the last period of play lasted just two overs. Everyone minded, everyone was irritated but everyone understood. The cricket played over the next two days, some of it at Hove and Trent Bridge, but most if it at New Road, will determine whether Middlesex are playing in the First Division next year, so Tim Murtagh's players can be encouraged that they ended this bleak, rainy, sunlit day just 79 runs behind Worcestershire with eight first-innings wickets in hand.
The cricketer chiefly responsible for this modestly prosperous position may well never have batted in such conditions in all his spit. Pieter Malan had manged only 104 runs for Middlesex in his five Championship innings before this match but his unbeaten 68 was a masterpiece of concentration and technique on what is still a tricksy pitch and his unbroken stand of 73 with Max Holden for the third wicket has encouraged Middlesex supporters that they may even pick up a useful first-innings lead. Holden, who at 24 is nine years Malan's junior, is 35 not out and will also have been warmly welcomed into the away dressing room on a gloomy rain-strewn evening.
Thankfully the weather had been kinder during the luncheon interval and that was important because there were also fond and sorrowful end-of-season rituals to be performed on this antepenultimate day of the season. Both Moeen Ali and Ed Barnard are joining Warwickshire and Tom Fell is not being offered a new contract. All three received presentations during the lunch interval, Moeen and Fell in their absence, and one felt particularly for 28-year-old Fell, of whom so much was once expected. One also thought with pardonable bitterness of those former England cricketers who make damn-fool declarations that domestic cricket is soft or that there is too much of it. I wonder if Tom Fell agrees.
There were few easy runs on offer today and no sign of spinners. Worcestershire resumed on 167 for 8 but Dillon Pennington and Josh Tongue found run-scoring almost straightforward in the first half-hour of play. Maybe it was the effect of the roller but the pair had put on 45 before Pennington was leg before to Ryan Higgins for 13 in the 80th over. And, of course, the probable imminence of final wicket did not prevent Murtagh taking the new ball almost as soon as it became available. It was, though, required for only 15 deliveries before Ben Gibbon edged Toby Roland-Jones to John Simpson, so if you see an advert flogging a nearly new cricket ball in Wednesday's edition of the Worcester News, you will have a decent idea of its origins.
The 58 runs scored by Worcestershire's tail were valuable in themselves but also because they kept Mark Stoneman and Sam Robson in the field for nearly an hour before they began Middlesex's reply. Openers relish such delays much as nervous patients enjoy sitting in a dentist's waiting-room. One group sees Satan working on the pitch; the other imagines anguished yells from behind the surgery door. And Robson's misgivings were certainly justified. Pennington's third ball of the Middlesex innings may have been very quick but it could have been left alone. Instead of that, however, Robson intercepted it with a crooked bat and inside-edged it into his stumps.
And matters would have got worse for Middlesex had Mark Stoneman not been dropped off Gibbon when Jack Haynes shelled a straightforward chest-high chance at second slip when the former England opener was on 10. Encouraged by this let-off Stoneman collected the single he needed to reach a thousand first-class runs for the season and went on to make 36 before he nicked a very rapid, lifter from Tongue, who is having another good match.
That brought Holden out to join Malan, who hit successive back foot fours off Barnard and then reached his fifty with a pulled six off the same bowler. The day disintegrated into heavy showers and brief sunshine. Big shots were put away unless the invitations were irresistible. Holden has batted for 83 minutes and one wonders how much he has learned. Malan has been out there for a shade over three hours and it is only now, as darkness marches across New Road, that one realises how fine an innings it has been.

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