On a late September afternoon, a hat trick by Toby Roland-Jones won Middlesex the County Championship title. It brought the 2016 season to a triumphant end. Unbeaten in their Championship campaign, Middlesex were worthy winners and should be strong contenders again in 2017.
Not everyone, of course, was happy with the Middlesex win. There were fans as far apart as the Quantocks and the Yorkshire Dales who felt that the contrived way in which the result was achieved had robbed their team of the title. Never mind. Like the first (as distinct from the current) President of the United States, ultimately the table cannot lie.
As if to prove that their last gasp success was no fluke, Middlesex have already started the 2017 season with a thrilling win over a strong MCC team in Abu Dhabi. A bowling attack missing regulars Roland-Jones, Tim Murtagh and Ollie Rayner was still able to take 20 wickets; and the lower-order batting gave enough support to unsung hero John Simpson to enable him to chase down a target of over 300 and clinch a one-wicket victory.
All of this augurs well for the forthcoming Championship campaign. Although Nick Compton is unlikely to match the achievements of his Grandfather 70 years ago (3816 runs and 18 centuries), he must surely have a better season than last year. In addition, Adam Voges, Sam Robson, Nick Gubbins and Dawid Malan, along with Simpson, should guarantee plenty of runs. No doubt the Middlesex bowlers would appreciate a little more help from the Lord’s pitch but the all round strength in depth of the bowling attack speaks for itself.
In theory, the same squad, with reinforcements, should also do well in one-day competitions. The problem here is that the track record in the shorter formats is far less convincing. There was, admittedly, an improvement last year in the NatWest T20 Blast. Having finished bottom in their group in the previous two seasons, Middlesex did make the quarter finals in 2016, only to surrender meekly to eventual winners Northants.
In the Royal London One Day Cup, Middlesex could only manage sixth place. Overall, a record of 11 wins and 11 losses in white ball cricket was simply not good enough to win trophies.
It looks as though there will be a serious focus on the T20 Blast in 2017, as evidenced by the return of Brendon McCullum plus the recruitment of fellow Kiwi Daniel Vettori as Twenty20 Head Coach. The message is that Middlesex are intent on making a challenge in this competition.
Ins: None (Daniel Vettori joins as Twenty20 Head Coach)
Outs: Andrew Balbirnie (released); Mitchell McCleneghan (New Zealand); George Bailey (Hampshire); Max Holden (on loan to Northants until end of June)
Toby Roland-Jones had an outstanding season in 2016, with 84 wickets in all competitions, as well as managing a couple of fifties in the Championship. His call up to the England Lions in the winter was well deserved and he steadily took wickets for them.
Few Middlesex supporters would begrudge Roland-Jones a full international cap. But they will also hope that he can play often enough for the county to make a telling contribution. His wholehearted fast-medium bowling has so far brought him over 450 wickets in his career at an average in the mid-twenties.
Player to Watch
Having spent the first part of 2016 on loan to Glamorgan, fast-medium bowler Harry Podmore returned to Middlesex and put in some good performances. Five wickets against MCC in Abu Dhabi have set him up well for 2017.
It is a noticeable failing that Middlesex have been much more successful in recruiting and developing players from afar than in developing their own talent. So the fact that 22-year-old Podmore is a local lad, born in Hammersmith, must count in his favour.
For another local boy, Gubbins, 2016 was a breakthrough season. This year, it could be Podmore’s turn.
Adam Voges has retired from international cricket with a Test batting average of just under 62, second only to Sir Donald Bradman. Neither he nor the most devoted Middlesex supporter would claim that he is the second best batsman of all time. But he should continue to score prolifically in what will be his fourth season for the county.
Brendon McCullum will be available for the T20 Blast. He is unlikely to score runs consistently, but when he does they will come quickly and in spectacular style. He and new T20 coach Daniel Vettori could well combine to deliver the boost that Middlesex need to make a real impact in T20 cricket.
How they will fare?
In trying to assess overall prospects there are, of course, uncertainties. No-one can predict whether the squad may be depleted by injuries to key players. And there is also the possibility of international call-ups.
Not much will be seen of Eoin Morgan, and Steven Finn is likely to be needed by England if fit and in form. Malan, Gubbins and Roland-Jones must also be in the selectors’ minds whilst Compton, Robson and the as yet uncapped Simpson may well still harbour hopes of selection. In addition, Paul Stirling and Murtagh will have Irish commitments.
The squad, however, has strength in depth. So any absences may serve to give more opportunities to second string players like Tom Helm, Ravi Patel and the aforementioned Podmore.
A clutch of counties, including Yorkshire and Somerset, will be looking to take the Championship crown from Middlesex. At the very least, however, the holders will expect to make a decent defence of their title.
Success in a one-day competition is also a real possibility. So anyone who is a betting man might feel, at the odds available (see below), that a small investment on Middlesex to win a trophy could be more profitable than keeping the money under the mattress.
v Hampshire, Friday April 14 at the Ageas Bowl
SSCC County Championship Division One: 7/2
Royal London One-Day Cup: 14/1
NatWest T20 Blast: 12/1