The reigning champions return to the site of their triumph in September with high hopes that they can kick-start their title defence with a win over newly-promoted Essex.
Essex have, however, started the season brightly, with a win and a draw in their first two matches.
Middlesex were frustrated by Hampshire’s batsmen in their opening fixture of the season. Angus Fraser and his side have the hunger and the resources to defend their first County Championship title this century, but will be keenly aware that their opponents will do everything they can to thwart that ambition. While Middlesex are a difficult team to beat outright – it did not happen at all in 2016 – if enough teams can hold them to draws, Middlesex could be knocked off the top spot.
If these are the tactics teams will employ to blunt the champions, then Essex have a good chance of executing them effectively. They batted out the final day of their first match against Lancashire to salvage five points against an attack included James Anderson. Essex will also have one of the greatest defensive batsmen England has ever produced in the form of Alastair Cook.
While the stakes on this encounter are not as high as their dramatic final-day win over Yorkshire last September, Middlesex may well see this first home game of the season as a key test of their title credentials. If they once again struggle to bowl out a weaker team cheaply and quickly, other teams will feel more optimistic about their own title chances. As we are constantly reminded these days, strange things happen all the time – could Essex even emerge as a surprise participant in the title race?
Toby Roland-Jones delivered Middlesex their title with a hat-trick last September, and the ability of their opening bowlers to make in-roads into enemy top orders will be key to their chances this season. Roland-Jones is one of the cluster of seam bowlers who are on the fringes of the England team and, at 29, needs to take every opportunity he can to press his case over the rising stars of the Overton twins and the blistering form of Surrey’s Mark Footitt.
How can you look past Alastair Cook? The man who started both his England career and his England captaincy with memorable centuries began life after skipperhood with a match-winning 110 (along with 52 in the first innings) against Somerset. It is no criticism of Essex to say that he stands head and shoulders above their other batsmen. Some members of the Essex middle order have looked out of form in the past couple of games, though, so it will be very important for the promoted side that their key man makes his two innings count.
Middlesex have named a 14-man squad for the game at Lord’s. There is still no place for the injured Nick Compton, but spinner Ravi Patel has been added to the squad from the group who travelled to the Ageas Bowl.
Middlesex squad: James Franklin (c), Stephen Eskinazi, Steven Finn, Nick Gubbins, Tom Helm, Ryan Higgins, Dawid Malan, Tim Murtagh, Ravi Patel, Ollie Rayner, Sam Robson, Toby Roland-Jones, John Simpson (wk), Adam Voges
Still no place for James Foster in the Essex team despite Adam Wheater’s third consecutive single-figure score. There has been no pressure on Chris Silverwood to change the team because Essex have had a good start to life in the top division.
Essex squad: Ryan ten Doeschate (c), Aaron Beard, Ravi Bopara, Nick Browne, Varun Chopra, Alastair Cook, Simon Harmer, Dan Lawrence, Jamie Porter, Matt Quinn, Neil Wagner, Adam Wheater (wk)
Weather and conditions
Clouds, sun, warmth, some breeze. It will be a mixture, but with nothing falling from the sky, we can expect a match uninterrupted by adverse weather.
Date: 21st – 24th April 2017
Umpires: Ian Gould and Paul Baldwin
Odds (SkyBet): Middlesex 4/7, Essex 11/8