On a day which lost almost an hour to rain, Middlesex extended their control on proceedings with a gritty defiance that is starting to mark their 2015 campaign.
Winning four out of their first five matches last season, Middlesex temporarily went top of the County Championship, yet a mighty drop in form had them scraping for points to stay up come the final round of matches in September. Eight months on, and up against a Durham side that once again look set to be among those challenging at the top of the table, and Adam Voges’ team have relocated the application that went missing at times in 2014.
From the close-up vantage point where Durham watched events, they knew that afternoon batting should not be too tricky with brighter conditions developing. Concerns were eased further when Ireland seamer Tim Murtagh pulled up two balls into the innings’ first over clutching his left hamstring. He did not feature again and the Irish authorities will be paying close attention to his medical assessment tomorrow ahead of their match against England on Friday, for which he had been picked.
Yet even in his absence, and on a pitch as lively as a Monty Python parrot, Middlesex went about preventing Paul Collingwood’s team from imposing themselves. Although a 10 over blast before tea troubled Durham little, putting on 35 without loss, James Harris made the breakthrough in his first over after the break. Having previously batted calmly, Mark Stoneman flashed at a Harris delivery, sending it to Rayner at second slip.
Harris, a bowler who when in form can be devilish to face, has suffered in recent seasons, even dropping a division to spend part of 2014 at his old club Glamorgan on loan. However a return to his original bowling action – both arms raised before release – has brought about a change in fortune.
And he struck again to dismiss Michael Ricahrdson caught behind, either side of James Franklin removing the dangerous Scott Borthwick and Steven Finn’s late intervention bowling Calum MacLeod off a climbing ball that pinged his arm and crashed into the stumps. Keaton Jennings resisted courageously, finishing the day unbeaten on 61, but he will need a partner to stick through the morning if the are to close in on Middlesex’s innings, with the follow-on still 156 runs away.
Middlesex wicketkeeper John Simpson said: “There have been a few home truths as a group about how we fall away at times. Everyone thinks our middle order is a bit weak or bowlers are not doing their jobs as well as we’d like.”
“It’s been a real focus of our winter to be ruthless; go out there and fight hard. For us it’s key not to give our wickets away like we did last year. It shows we are a force when we put everything together. We just need to keep that consistency and build on the momentum.”
Buoyed by warmer weather, enabling the ball to swing that bit more than yesterday, Durham struck soon after play began at 11:50am – overcast conditions further benefiting their cause. John Hastings, coming down the slope and around the wicket, angled one in to Franklin, zipping through the gate and hitting the stumps. He then removed nightwatchman Harris, whose expansive shot deflected behind for Phil Mustard to collect.
And for a time, it looked as if Durham might restrict Middlesex from achieving all five batting points, pegging them back to 341 for 6 at one point. Yet as the sun emerged and the pitch flattened out Simpson and Neil Dexter made a valuable 56-run partnership, moving to within one of the required 400 total, when Dexter hooked Hastings for Usman Arshad to catch at long leg.
Ollie Raynor was next to go, lbw to Chris Rushworth for 16, swiftly followed by Murtagh bowled. Simpson, meanwhile, continued along at a steady rate, although he was made to wait eights overs from the time he reached 40 to complete his half-century. A couple of mighty blows later and Hastings had his fifth wicket of the innings, a shorter delivery stuck in the pitch and Simpson mistimed his shot, sending high for Rushworth at mid-off.