Middlesex 214 and 202 for 4 (Robson 75, Morgan 41*) lead Lancashire 302 (Croft 60) by 114 runs
More than any sport cricket is a series of duels within the context of a team game; and as the summer drifts by, the importance of each tiny battle becomes even clearer within the 64 days of each side's Championship programme. By late September, the pattern of the season is revealed: a Gobelin tapestry of simple shapes and unsuspected intricacies.
At precisely 11.30 on the third morning of beguiling contest, Middlesex's Toby Roland-Jones prepared to bowl the 110th over of Lancashire's first innings to Glen Chapple. The home side were 293 for 8 and needed seven runs to secure a third bonus point. If they failed to do this or if a wicket fell, Lancashire were relegated, for they could not make up the 19-point margin between the sides.
Roland-Jones had been bowling tightly and his first ball was on a good length. Yet Chapple, who has always had a good eye, sweet timing and buckets of courage, hoicked it over midwicket for six. Once again this season, we heard bellows of relief from the players' balcony and cheers from the pavilion opposite; and almost before their echoes had died, those cheers were redoubled as Lancashire's warrior-captain squirted three more runs through backward point and declared his side's innings closed.
Without those shots in that very small personal encounter between two fine professional cricketers, the second half of this game could have represented little more than a chore, the routine completion of a very long fixture-list.
As it is, Lancashire's cricketers know that their only objective is to win the match, and by close of play, notwithstanding Sam Robson's 75, his first half-century since the third day of the Trent Bridge Test in July, Middlesex have made 202 for 4, giving them a lead of 114. The game remains afoot.
Eoin Morgan is 41 not out and Neil Dexter, having taken 50 balls to get off the mark with a boundary is unbeaten on 4. We will therefore go into the last day of the season with the final issue of the 2014 season still to be decided. The last threads of the tapestry remain unstitched.
Yet whichever of these two teams joins Northamptonshire in Division Two next April, no one present at Old Trafford this dull Thursday morning will forget that the tension they felt and shared with their fellows as they watched some of the most riveting county cricket of the season.
Beginning the day on 259 for 6, Lancastrian hopes were raised by two boundaries, a drive by Luke Procter and a biff over midwicket by Chapple. Yet it was Tim Murtagh who struck the most significant blows when he had both Procter and Kerrigan lbw in the space of four balls, the first of these achieved with a ball which pitched outside leg stump. But such things happen during the course of a season. It is often the teams which get over them who prevail and prosper.
Chapple was joined by Tom Bailey, a 23-year-old playing his fourth first-class game. Bailey was just one year old when Lancashire's captain made his debut but the young lad immediately showed that he was overawed neither by his partner nor the situation. He got off the mark with a two; then there was an edged four and a push for three. Singles followed but Middlesex's bowlers kept to their work and stifled the run rate. Safety beckoned them.
There was a scurried single, then block, block, play and miss. Silence on the ground. Journalists were unable to type their updates. Experienced ex-cricketers said how wonderful all this was and then found themselves almost unable to watch the play. At least Chapple and Bailey had the comfort of involvement, as did eleven Middlesex cricketers who have scrapped like hell these three days.
We got to that 110th over. Roland-Jones v Chapple.
To paraphrase Sid Waddell: Maxine Peake is playing Hamlet at the Royal Exchange but she won't beat that for drama.
The cricket that followed Lancashire's innings had a different tempo to it - thank God for that, thought the paramedics perhaps - but it was no less involving. Lancashire managed to drop Rogers twice before lunch but the Australian opener has looked a little less secure than usual in this match.
Perhaps he was remembering his decision to bat first on Tuesday morning. In any event, it was no huge surprise when, having made 21 in 93 minutes, he edged a cramped cut onto his stumps to give Bailey another reason to remember his day. But Middlesex were then 78 for 1 and the deficit was a mere 10 runs.
At the other end Robson was batting with increasing confidence, as if he was relearning skills that had temporarily deserted him. Slow left-armer Kerrigan, by contrast, was still searching for his best rhythm; indeed, he has spent most of the summer engaged in this quest. Maidens were rare and the spinner was not applying pressure as he did in his golden-gleaming early seasons.
Yet Kerrigan has never wanted for flinty courage. There was some loop, some spin. Robson had hit ten boundaries in 105 balls when he received a short delivery from the spinner and slapped it straight to short extra cover where sub fielder Liam Livingstone took a good catch above his head. A mere 18 runs later Kerrigan had a second wicket when Joe Denly tried to take his bat away from a good ball but only gloved a catch to Paul Horton at slip. Middlesex took tea on 141 for 3, a lead of 53.
The last session was the quietest of the day. Junaid Khan produced a brute of a delivery to have Dawid Malan caught at slip by Steven Croft for a patient 39 and Lancashire would have slept a little better had Horton not spilled a slip catch off Dexter when the Middlesex man had yet to play his single scoring shot.
The light closed in and the umpires fussed about it. The players came off with eight overs to be bowled. There is one more day left in this game and only the brave or foolish would predict its shape.