Jack Sheldon, long-time Middlesex supporter and writer for Deep Extra Cover, previews Somerset’s vital championship game at Uxbridge this week
Middlesex really ought to be up with Notts and Yorkshire at the top of the Championship table. They won four games before the end of May, have had much more access to Eoin Morgan and Steve Finn than in recent seasons, and James Harris and Ollie Rayner, both England Lions in Sri Lanka this winter, have not even made the starting XI in recent weeks.Despite this embarrassment of riches the Londoners find themselves bang in mid-table, the position in which they finished last year after squandering another strong start. Such is the congested nature of this year’s table that any of the top six could yet clinch the title with a run of wins but everybody from third place down also needs to look over their shoulders and towards the second relegation place – only 25 points divide third placed Warwickshire and eighth placed Sussex.
Since their return to Division One in 2012 it is the batting that has generally been Middlesex’s Achilles heel but in recent weeks it is the bowling that has under-performed. On flat wickets at Trent Bridge and Lord’s, and perhaps more inexplicably on the opening day at Chester-le-Street, an attack of Finn, Tim Murtagh and Toby Roland-Jones has gone round the park. At times this season all three have won matches for their county but it is possible that the opportunity to bring Harris back in will be taken this week.
The batting, on the other hand, has been much better. After a torrid 2013 Dawid Malan is back with two 90s and a century last week, and Neil Dexter and John Simpson’s runs have ensured that the middle order has come to the party. But the king pin remains Chris Rogers, who will need 75 this week to reach the 1000 run landmark. The Australian has shown few signs of fatigue after a grueling international and domestic schedule, scoring three centuries including a sensational 241* as Middlesex chased 472 against Yorkshire.
It is often supposed that Somerset are a side in decline, but I’m not sure that’s fair in four-day cricket. If anything they have stayed still whilst the pack have caught up, but they remain an imposing line-up and genuine title contenders. After a period where their young players appeared to be struggling to break through, Lewis Gregory really seems to have come good this season, something he showed signs of doing last year when he helped bowl Somerset to a crushing win over Middlesex at Lord’s. Craig Overton has also come to the fore whilst his brother Jamie has continued to impress in patches, even if his workload needs to be managed. Add in the experience of Marcus Trescothick, Nick Compton, James Hildreth and Alfonso Thomas and you have an outfit that nobody should be taking lightly.
This week’s game will be played in Uxbridge, a leafy town at the heart of North West London suburbia. It is a place of few distinguishing features and the cricket ground lacks the aesthetic qualities of many of those out-grounds that remain. However, Lord’s is only available for six Middlesex games per season and excursions to Uxbridge, as well as Merchant Taylors’ School where they were due to play Sussex earlier this season in a game that was washed out, bring the cricket closer to the parts of the capital where the Club’s fanbase is centred. A decent crowd should be expected.
Over the years Uxbridge has been something of a bogey ground for Middlesex. They have not won there in 12 Championship matches since 1995, when they beat Leicestershire by one run. In part this is because the generally flat pitch produces a lot of draws, though last year’s game with Warwickshire saw the visitors win by five wickets thanks to Varun Chopra’s 228 not out despite Adam Voges contributing 150 for Middlesex.
In a tight division every game is critical but with the season almost two thirds done a failure to win here would make life very difficult for either side. Expect a tense game, then, with both teams desperate to force a win that could set up a run for the title.