By Mark Kidger
Where? Lords, North London
Outs: Ryan Higgins (Gloucestershire)
Key Man: Toby Roland-Jones
2017 season: Championship: 7th (relegated), RLODC: 8th, T20 Blast 7th
2018 odds: Championship 15/8, RLODC: 12/1, T20: N/A - Odds powered by Oddschecker.com
The last dozen years have shown wild swings of fortune for Middlesex fans and, not least, for the admirable Radio London commentators who have recounted it cheerfully, day after day, however awful things were on the field. Radio London started commentary long before the current service that sees every ball of every Championship and List A game broadcast, as well as some Minor Counties games. Pioneered by Mark Church at The Oval and by Ned Hall and the Kevin Hand at Lord’s, they have followed the highs and some pretty desperate lows. The joy with which Kevin Hand broadcast the final overs of the Middlesex charge to the Championship title on September 26th 2016 was counterpointed by the cheerful bonhomie of the sadly departed Dave Callaghan, the visiting commentator for Yorkshire, describing the massive party in the ground, with even the curmudgeonly Dave Townsend sounding slightly less miserable than usual on the commentary.
Roll on one year and things were so different. Rather than defending their title, as many expected, Middlesex were spiralling to defeat at Taunton, their relegation effectively sealed by a crossbow arrow at The Oval and their failure to take batting bonus points at Taunton.
Where did it all go wrong?
Even in early August, that final fixture at Taunton was looming its gorgon-like head and, with it, a realisation that it might be crucial and that, if it were, Somerset were unlikely to be generous hosts after the events of twelve months before. First Division safety should have been sealed long before staking everything on that final game.
Division 1 in 2017 was all about fine margins, as testified by the gap of just two points between Yorkshire in fourth and Middlesex in seventh. With one fewer side, there were two fewer “easy games” in which big points could be bagged. As such, opportunities had to be grabbed with both hands when they presented themselves. Middlesex will regret a handful of moments of absent-mindedness that ultimately proved costly.
The worst of these were two, ultimately catastrophic brain-fades as early as April 23rd. Having amassed 507-7d, powered by centuries for Robson, Gubbins and Eskinazi – the top three in the order – Steve Finn and Tim Murtagh engineered an Essex collapse from 282-6 to 295ao. Rather than enforce the Follow-On, James Franklin decided to rest his bowlers and batted again. Robson, Gubbins and Eskinazi filled their boots again and, with a poor weather forecast for the last day, the declaration was delayed, unbelievably, until just eight overs before the Close, with a ludicrous target of 452. The weather, inevitably, closed-in and Essex survived with 8-down, almost 300 short. Middlesex missed the chance of an early win and some Championship momentum and did not finally register a win until Round Six, when they did not repeat the same mistake of not enforcing the Follow-On and beat Yorkshire by an innings and plenty at Lord’s, before succumbing themselves to Essex in the next round to an innings defeat, by which time alarm bells should have been ringing loudly.
The second black day was August 31st. The events of that day have been endlessly discussed and Middlesex can, quite rightly, feel hard done by, although it was an accident waiting to happen. All season Middlesex had been behind on the over-rate, sometimes by as much as 5 overs and only smart work by the scorer – known within the club as “The Magician” – again and again, to get umpires to make allowances for minor delays in play, had saved them from points deductions. Even The Magician’s powers were defeated as Middlesex, found themselves in the centre of the possibly the most bizarre incident ever seen in a British cricket ground.
A game that should have been dead after the whole of the third day was lost, blazed to life on the last morning as a typical Middlesex collapse saw Surrey sniffing the unlikeliest of victories at Lunch, with Middlesex 61 ahead with six wickets down and Nick Compton retired hurt and looking unlikely to bat again. Stubborn resistance, led by the admirable John Simpson, inched Middlesex to safety. The draw had been ensured when a lethal crossbow bolt, fired from several hundred metres outside the ground, crashed into the square close to one of the players, provoking a terrorist alert, an evacuation of the ground and the abandonment of the game. Middlesex, who were two overs behind on the over-rate, had planned a token declaration before the handshake to allow them to whistle down a few overs and avoid a points deduction. The declaration never happened. In the confusion, the umpires failed to report that they felt that the over-rate violation should be pardoned and the resultant two-point deduction sent Middlesex down.
These incidents, individually relatively trivial, epitomise the Middlesex 2017 campaign. It was a chapter of accidents. You got the feeling that after the supreme effort of winning the title in 2016 after so many near-misses, the side just relaxed slightly and that few percent below maximum performance, combined with an absurdly tight table, made the difference between a top-three finish and relegation.
It is absurd that a county that could field six players with England Test caps, two who will undoubtedly play Tests for Ireland and one who played Tests for New Zealand, should be consigned to Division Two, but that is what 2018 brings. The squad, mob-handed with talent, has not been reinforced, no overseas professional has yet been confirmed and the only change is the loss of white-ball player Ryan Higgins to Gloucestershire.
One would like to think that Middlesex will outclass the opposition in Division Two in 2018 in the same way that Nottinghamshire did in 2017 after relegation. In Sam Robson and Nick Gubbins, they have one of the best opening pairs in the country, both of whom might have harboured hopes last September of going to Australia as back-up openers. A hungry Nick Compton is an insatiable run machine. Eoin Morgan has declared his intent to play Championship cricket again, though where he would fit into the first-choice middle order is doubtful. Paul Stirling is beginning to deliver on his promise. John Simpson is rated one of the best wicket-keeper batsmen in the country and the seam attack is so strong that James Harris, who had had an amazing season with bat and ball in 2015, could be loaned-out to Kent without diminishing its depth. A fit seam attack of Finn, Roland-Jones and Murtagh, backed-up by any one of Harris, Helm and Podmore, with Ollie Rayner as a better than average spinner, should be far too good for Division Two batting line-ups on the spicier Division 2 pitches.
That is the theory. The reality is that for such a talented side, Middlesex seemed ridiculously prone to horrific collapses in 2017, so much so that fans again threatened to set up the MiddlesexBattingCollapse.com website. Almost as bad was the bowling attack's inability to take maximum bowling points on several occasions. No one epitomised more the struggles of the middle order than Steve Eskinazi, so highly rated at Lord’s, who was top run-scorer for the season, with 793 runs to his name, but who tailed-away so badly that he managed a top score of just 16 in his last six Championship games, scoring a mere 75 runs at an average of 7.5 in those games. Apart from Sam Robson, who also fell away badly after a wonderful first half of the season and John Simpson (who averaged 28.5), no one else managed 500 runs. Finn, Roland-Jones, Helm, Harris and Rayner all averaged the wrong side of 30 with the ball, although some excuse can be found in the nature of the home pitches that they bowled on. The impression was that the attack missed having a wrecking-ball bowler that Harris had been for them in 2015 and Roland-Jones and Rayner in 2016.
Middlesex should come straight back up without breaking a sweat but, if they do not, you can imagine that it might take five or six years to gain promotion, as it had after their previous relegation. The key to promotion may be the fitness and availability of Toby Roland-Jones: if he stays fit and if England does not take him away, he should pick up a stack of wickets. Almost as vital will be Sam Robson’s appetite for runs and his ability to combine with Nick Gubbins to give solid starts and force scoreboard pressure.
The Lord’s gloom extended to the white-ball game. The One Day Cup has been a source of pain to fans for several years now. Two wins from eight games saw Middlesex interest ended quickly. Middlesex also had a losing record in the Blast, in a desperately tight South Group, in which just one more win could have brought passage to the knock-out stages on Net Run Rate. While any success with the white ball in 2018 will be received with open arms, these competitions will certainly take a back seat to the season’s real priority of promotion in the Championship.
Where I think Middlesex will finish:
County Championship: 1st
One-Day Cup: 8th (South Group)
T20 Blast: 7th (South Group)
You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkfromMadrid or at http://spanishturn.blogspot.com.es/ and, talking about space, at https://openspacescience.blog/
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