In snatching the County Championship from under the noses of Yorkshire and Somerset, Middlesex not only won the title for the first time since 1993 but also provided a boost of positive publicity for county cricket’s oldest competition.
The mounting tension on that Friday afternoon at Lord’s brought the 2016 season to a fitting conclusion. It also completed an unbeaten campaign for the new champions in which they won six times.
Middlesex built their success on solid batting performances. Six of their most regular line-up averaged over forty and Nick Gubbins exceeded 1400 runs. No-one else reached 1,000 but Sam Robson, John Simpson and Dawid Malan all topped 750.
It is a truism, however, that bowlers win matches and championships. Toby Roland-Jones took the hat-trick that clinched the title to make his season’s wicket tally 54. But Middlesex were equally indebted to off-spinner Ollie Rayner and seamer Tim Murtagh who captured 51 and 43 wickets respectively.
Until they won their last two home matches, Middlesex found victory impossible to achieve at Lord’s. They had five drawn games there, the only other home win being against Hampshire at Northwood. In retrospect, the away wins against Yorkshire by an innings at Scarborough and against Somerset by just two wickets at Taunton were crucial in deciding the title in their favour.
The win was the culmination of years of hard work behind the scenes. Managing Director Angus Fraser took charge back in 2009 and has gradually brought together a cohesive squad. Players have been introduced from as far afield as Australia (Sam Robson), South Africa (Stevie Eskinazi) and even Bury (John Simpson); and the coaching staff have been highly successful in nurturing the talents they have recruited.
So much for the Championship.
In the NatWest T20 Blast, Middlesex had endured the indignity of ending at the bottom of their group in the previous two seasons so the only way was up. By finishing third this year with seven wins and six losses, they qualified for the quarter finals. They then came up against the eventual winners, Northants, and were easily beaten.
Dawid Malan scored well in the competition and Eoin Morgan contributed in the few matches he played. But overseas hit man Brendon McCullum played only one significant innings in his half a dozen games.
All-rounder Ryan Higgins showed good form. With his off-spin, he topped the bowling averages. He also had the best economy rate at 7.0 per over. It was Roland-Jones who took most wickets with 17 but James Fuller was close behind with 14.
As for the Royal London One-Day Cup, four wins and four defeats were only good enough for sixth place in the South group. Paul Stirling and Eoin Morgan scored well and McCullum managed one century although only playing three games.
With the ball, it was (guess who?) Roland-Jones who took most wickets with 13 and James Franklin claimed 12. Although Rayner was economical, the rest struggled to deliver much of a threat.
Overall, 11 wins and 11 losses in white ball cricket tell their own story – not too bad though still well short of the form needed to win trophies. But at least Middlesex know now that they can compete in the shorter forms of the game and will look to take this learning forward into next season.
Player of the Season: Toby Roland-Jones
There are several contenders including underrated keeper John Simpson. But Player of the Season has to be Toby Roland Jones. That title-winning hat-trick was almost enough in itself. But truth to tell, he was outstanding all season in all competitions. 84 wickets is, by modern standards, an exceptional haul. He also often hit lustily towards the end of the innings, managing a couple of fifties in the Championship – and 16 sixes. All in all, a good season’s work.
Breakthrough Player: Nick Gubbins
Having selected 22 year old Nick Gubbins as the Middlesex player to watch in the pre-season review, it is a pleasure to name him now as the Breakthrough Player of the Season. The left-handed opener scored over 1700 runs in all competitions. A double of 125 and 93 in that final match against Yorkshire confirmed his ability to play under pressure and adjust to the circumstances of the match. It was a triumph of both temperament and technique. His selection for the England Lions is fully deserved.
Could have done better: Nick Compton
The 2016 season was a disappointing one for Nick Compton. His Test career finally went down the tubes and in the Championship he averaged well under 30, seldom making a real impact on matches. His 131 against Durham in August showed that all the ability is still there. But he – and Middlesex – will be expecting much better next year.
Need to work on
Of the players who triumphed against Yorkshire, only Gubbins and Steven Finn could be hailed as truly home-grown. So it would be good to see more players coming through the youth system. Maybe Hammersmith born Harry Podmore will be the one in 2017 to make the kind of breakthrough that Nick Gubbins managed this year.
Angus Fraser has already been quoted as saying that Middlesex want to match the back-to-back championship titles of Yorkshire so that will clearly be the number one objective next year. But once the euphoria of victory has subsided, Middlesex will realise that retaining their title will be at least as demanding a task as winning this year. Alongside this, it would be a shame if Middlesex could not build on the improved form they showed this year in one-day cricket.
T20 Blast: Quarter Finals (3rd, South Group)
RLODC: sixth, South Group
Leading run-scorers: SSCC: Nick Gubbins – 1409 @ 61.26; T20 Blast: Dawid Malan – 368 – SR147.79; RLODC: Paul Stirling – 348 @ 49.71
Leading wicket-takers: SSCC: Toby Roland-Jones – 54 @28.22; T20 Blast: Toby Roland-Jones – 17 – Econ: 7.35; RLODC: Toby Roland-Jones – 13 – Econ:5.05
Win %: 43.6
Success in the championship plus the glorious manner in which it was clinched on the final day made it a memorable season for Middlesex. OK, their comparative lack of success in One-Day cricket leaves them room for improvement. But sometimes you have to ride the horse in the direction it is going. And that moment when Toby Roland-Jones completed his hat-trick to win the Championship is surely one that no Middlesex fan would swap for a mere One-Day bauble.