By Paul Edwards
For Middlesex supporters this season has been many things: disappointing, certainly; annoying, for sure; but dull? Never.
Consider for a moment. Dawid Malan’s side appear lodged in the middle of Division Two, a miserable showing for a team who were strongly tipped to win immediate promotion back to English cricket’s top tier.
They have gained a mere eight batting bonus points and only Kent have managed fewer.
Yet they have also chased down 383 to beat Leicestershire and in the last round they defeated Northamptonshire after following on, a feat they have not achieved against any county since 1924.
Middlesex have also beaten Warwickshire, the title favourites, and should they beat Sussex in their current game they would cut the 39-point gap on Ben Brown’s second-placed side and give themselves some sort of a chance of finishing in the top two themselves.
For that to happen, though, Malan’s men would have to show a consistency they have not hitherto managed in a season in which no Middlesex batsman has scored more Championship runs than Max Holden’s 450.
It is a record which leaves Angus Fraser, their director of cricket, frustrated yet also filled with admiration for the way his players have responded to adversity.
“Nothing’s been easy, that’s for sure,” said Fraser before the start of the Sussex game. “Against Leicestershire we were 197-6 chasing 383 and we turned that one around. It’s been tough and we’ve not played well enough, but there have been times when we have shown real fight and desire.
“It would be far less stressful if we’d played well from the start of the matches instead of halfway through them. The best game we’ve played this year is against Gloucestershire, when we got 400-odd on the board and made them follow on but couldn’t manage to bowl them out on the final day.”
Yet Fraser makes the fair point that Middlesex’s troubles have not been entirely of their own making. No county, except perhaps Yorkshire, has been so badly affected by international calls and in Middlesex’s case these have not been confined to England, a point which the current absence of the Irish internationals, Paul Stirling and Tim Murtagh, makes very clear.
Tip in Lions call-ups and the sort of injuries which ruled out Toby Roland-Jones for the season and Fraser’s point is all the more understandable.
“For the first three games of the season we had five players out,” he said. “For the game against Kent we lost six.
“Now, England call-ups are a positive because we have two jobs as a club: to achieve success as a county and to provide England players. But all of a sudden you have six or seven players whose focus has been on Middlesex suddenly being pulled somewhere else. Their focus is knocked off kilter because England comes along.”
One listens to Fraser because he clearly regards international calls as reasons rather than excuses. Even with some players away he knows that Middlesex have under-performed and that they have often relied on the quick bowling of Murtagh and James Harris to get them out of trouble.
“The starting point is that we haven’t played well enough and with the squad of players we have you would like to think we would be more consistently competitive in the Championship,” he said.
“Harris and Murtagh have been outstanding but we haven’t been able to maintain that pressure over the second hour of innings.”
The search for reliable – and injury free – support seamers led Middlesex to call up Ethan Bamber against Northamptonshire and the 19-year-old responded by taking four important wickets.
“Ethan’s not 6ft 6in and he doesn’t bowl at 90mph but we like the look of him,” said Fraser. “There’s a really competitive, skilful bowler there and he’s getting stronger. He bowled beautifully at Northants.
“He’s a cracking young man and it’s nice that someone like him is getting an opportunity. At the start of this season he was probably the eighth bowler on our list but he’s got a chance of playing a few games now.”
So all Middlesex needed was a strong batting performance in the first innings of their game against Sussex. Instead of which they were bowled out for 169 and had to rely on their quicker bowlers, yet again, to reduce Sussex to 120-6 at stumps on the first day.
One imagines Fraser was disappointed but one doubts he was astonished.
“We’re in the middle of a second disappointing season and we haven’t managed the situation well,” he said.
“We have to finish the season extremely strongly and the fact is that we’ve won three of our last four Championship matches.
“If we put in a strong performance this week, we’re very much in the thick of it.”
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