It is indeed June and summer, astronomically speaking, is a mere ten days away. But anyone sat at Southport and Birkdale Cricket Club would have been forgiven for not feeling particularly summery. On a blustery Sunday on Lancashire’s West Coast, it was the hosts who hammered home their initiative to take full control against the reigning county champions.
And oh, it was blustery. Coats, fleeces, hats, scarves and gilets were all in operation. Had one possessed a snood, one would have reached for it without a moments hesitation. Questions were posed as to whether the press tent would withstand the buffeting, as it creaked and squealed through the afternoon.
As one observer put it, it was ‘blowing a hoolie’.
With no play possible on the second day, due to unrelenting rain, Middlesex began day three hoping they were winds of change. Having been skittled for 180 and then watched Lancashire battle their way to 123-4 at the end of day one, the visitors needed to make some early inroads.
And make them they did. Those arriving to brave conditions hoping for a long look at West Indian legend Shivnarine Chanderpaul, resuming his innings 40 hours after facing his last ball, were to be quickly disappointed as the left-hander edged his second ball of the morning to Sam Robson at first slip.
That gave Tim Murtagh a fourth wicket and he would soon claim his five-fer, as Chanderpaul’s overnight partner Dane Vilas was caught at second slip.
Lancashire were 136-6, still trailing by 44 and looked all at sea on the Merseyside coast. But in Ryan McLaren and Jordan Clark they had a pair prepared to batten down the hatches and navigate their way through choppy waters.
They shared the longest partnership of this wicket-laden match, including going 12 overs without hitting a boundary. But they battled their way through to a 62-run stand from 22 overs that guided Lancashire into the lead and to their first batting point.
Clark fell victim to James Harris for 38, and Stephen Parry went soon after to make Middlesex’s lunch go down a little better. At 217-8, with a lead of just 37, the Red Rose didn’t look like sailing away to the horizon.
But throw it forward an hour and the visitors lunch might have been repeating a touch. They took the new ball at the earliest opportunity at 233-8. Eight overs later McLaren and Tom Bailey had put 44 on to the total and racked up their 50 stand.
The pair put on the record ninth-wicket partnership for Lancashire at Southport, eventually broken for 87 when McLaren became Murtagh’s sixth victim for a superbly-made 75. The lead was up to 111 but Middlesex would have seen light at the end of a frustrating tunnel.
Bailey, though, was having none of it. He brought up his half-century with a remarkable six – taking on the hook shot while ducking his head and top-edging the ball over the rope. And the bowler followed it up next ball with a comprehensive pull onto the railway tracks to seal a career-best 58.
The innings ended when he tried to repeat the feat from the next ball but found it to be third time unlucky. It was a chaotic conclusion to an innings that had seen Lancashire battle to a lead of 129. It was a lead that had progressed from ‘handy’ to ‘useful’ to ‘commanding’.
Saqib Mahmood had caught the eye on the first day and made immediate progress into Middlesex’s top order, as Nick Gubbins was caught behind for one. The left-hander walked off, clearly displeased, gesturing it had come off an elbow.
Middlesex were struggling, no doubt, but they still possessed a seaworthy crew – if they could find a captain to steer the ship. Sam Robson, back from five weeks out, looked like being that man when he played seamlessly to reach 42 after Tea.
He’d lost his new partner Steven Eskinazi for 34 but Robson went for one drive too many and picked out Steven Croft at backward point. It felt like a big wicket for Lancashire, with Middlesex three down still trailing by 49 and they hammered it home.
Parry struck twice in the 31st over to dismiss Paul Stirling and John Simpson cheaply, before Mahmood returned to rip James Franklin’s off stump out with a searing yorker.
Talk turned to the thought of innings defeat, an extra half hour being claimed and reduced ticket prices for day four. But Dawid Malan and James Harris rallied, putting on an unbroken 46 for the seventh wicket to guide Middlesex to the close.
But it’s the visitors who emerged looking windswept and on sea legs. Ahead by just 27 with four wickets remaining, the reigning county champions are staring down the barrel of their first defeat in 21 championship games.
Middlesex bowler Tim Murtagh
“It’s disappointing that Lancashire have ended up getting 309 on a wicket where if we are at our best we would hope they wouldn’t get anywhere near.
“We have got ourselves ahead now and any runs we can get in the morning would be nice. We’ve just got to fight in that first hour so we will reassess and come back to see how far we can get ahead of them tomorrow.”
Lancashire all-rounder Ryan McLaren
“Very good day, we’d have taken it. The aim was to get close to their target and when we’d got there to get as many as possible. So to have 129 as a lead was a great position. From a batting position you never felt in on the wicket. You just have to graft and get as many as you can.
“It’s still difficult to bat on, there’s enough to keep any seamer interested so I don’t think it requires any extraordinary deliveries, just being as disciplined and accurate as possible.
“From our point of view we are mid-table so a win here would put us in a really good position. That’s something we can hopefully focus on later tomorrow.”