It was an Irishman resident in London (no, not Eoin Morgan but playwright Oliver Goldsmith) who originated what could well be the Middlesex rallying cry for 2018. “Our greatest glory,” he wrote, “is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
County Champions in 2016, the Middlesex fall from grace in 2017 was, to be sure, spectacular so a rise in fortunes is much needed. Relegation from the top flight of the Specsavers County Championship was combined with failure to qualify for the knockout stages of both of the white-ball competitions.
Only three wins in 14 Championship games was a poor return and ensured the drop in a division where a quarter of the teams were scheduled to go down.
That is not quite the whole story. Injuries and England call-ups weakened the squad and a generally lifeless Lord’s pitch was not conducive to achieving results. And many Middlesex supporters will still argue that the arrow of destiny that landed on the Oval square during the Surrey v Middlesex Championship game last August was the true reason that their team have to start this season in Division Two.
The main target for 2018, clearly, is an immediate bounce-back to the top flight, preferably as second tier champions. Despite last year’s disappointments, a virtually unchanged squad still looks strong enough to achieve that.
Dawid Malan has been appointed captain in all formats, though his England commitments may mean that the appointment of Sam Robson as vice-captain is equally significant.
The team may again be affected by other England call-ups. Toby Roland-Jones will be anxious to resume an international career interrupted by injury. Nick Gubbins was affected by both loss of form and injury last year, but in the light of England’s winter batting woes, he could well be in the mix for selection. Eoin Morgan is now firmly established as England’s one-day captain so may make only the odd four-day appearance.
Maybe the key to the team’s four-day fortunes lies in the amount of progress that young players such as Tom Helm and Max Holden can make. Overall, with Middlesex having provided four players to the England under-19 team, there is no shortage of youngsters pushing for places.
If playing in Division Two makes it easier for those young players to come through, it may even be that last year’s relegation will prove to be a blessing. As the Dalai Lama once said, “not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.”
Ins: Ashton Agar (T20 Blast)
Outs: Ryan Higgins (to Gloucestershire), Harry Podmore (Kent)
This could be a key season for 23-year-old pace bowler Tom Helm. In an injury-strewn career, he has played just 17 first-class matches. But no-one doubts his potential.
He has the ability to bowl in the 90mph plus range. If he can get an injury-free season and a few pitches with pace and bounce to bowl on, he could have Middlesex supporters (and the England selectors) purring with delight and opposition batsmen shaking inside their helmets.
Player to watch
20-year-old batsman Max Holden showed, when he was on loan to Northants last year, that he can score runs in Division Two so, back with Middlesex, he should get more opportunities this season.
A left-hander who has captained the England under-19 team, his batting demonstrates the kind of patience and self-discipline needed for the first-class game.
Australia’s Ashton Agar, recruited for T20, is so far the only overseas signing.
How they will fare
A squad that won the Division One title in 2016, reinforced by promising young players, should surely be a shoo-in for promotion. That’s certainly what the gentlemen of the betting fraternity think.
Of course, the game of cricket is rarely that simple and there will be others, such as Durham, Kent and Warwickshire who may also fancy their chances.
Nevertheless, the likes of Steve Eskinazi, Gubbins, Holden, Robson and Malan will surely pile up runs a-plenty. Then it will be up to those selected from a formidable bowling cohort of Steven Finn, Roland-Jones, Helm, Tim Murtagh and Ollie Rayner, supported as needed by James Franklin, James Harris, Ravi Patel and others to take those twenty wickets needed to win matches.
As for the limited overs competitions, Middlesex have woefully under-performed for several years.
In 2017, they won only seven of their 22 matches in the two white-ball competitions. The appointment of Daniel Vettori as T20 Head Coach had no visible effect. He returns again this year and will need to show better results. Although Agar will join for the T20 Blast, the departure of Ryan Higgins to Gloucestershire will weaken the one-day squad.
Just qualifying for the knock-out stages of one or other of the one-day competitions would represent progress.
SSCC Div Two vs Northamptonshire, Friday 13th April at Lord’s
SS County Championship Division 1: 15/8
Royal London One-Day Cup: 16/1
Vitality Twenty20 Blast: 12/1