Middlesex’s season must be termed a disappointment, as a club with their financial backing, having slipped down to Division Two the year after winning Division One, would expect to have bounced back immediately in the best possible style and gone up this year.
The fact that they did not will have infuriated Director of Cricket Angus Fraser, who made his displeasure clear for all to see in early July by sacking Head Coach Richard Scott, who had been in that position for a decade and was generally felt to be a mainstay of the set-up.
Widely tipped to return immediately to the top table along with Warwickshire, the Lord’s faithful will have been intensely irritated to see Kent and Sussex both steal a march and finish above them.
An overall results record in the Championship of seven wins, four draws and three defeats sounds impressive, but a look at the bonus points tally reveals why the Middle Saxons never quite found what was needed to properly challenge Kent and Warwickshire for promotion.
Middlesex only managed 14 batting bonus points, the joint second-least in the division. That’s the same figure as Northants, who finished 9th. No player averaged over 35 and they scored a mere four centuries in the entire campaign.
The openers both had mediocre seasons (Sam Robson took until mid-September to notch a red-ball century), Dawid Malan seemed to let being dropped by England affect his county form, Eoin Morgan performed terribly during his half dozen Championship matches, and none of the other batsman looked particularly capable either.
In that department, there is much for new coach Stuart Law, who announced he will join the club earlier this month, to work on. In some respects he may find it easier next year with regards to player availability, with important players like Malan and Nick Gubbins (who might have hoped to be in Sri Lanka at the moment) set to be available all year if the current England batting line-up stays the same.
Then we come to the elephant in the room. Whatever else has been said or written about Nick Compton being frozen out of the set up this season, it’s hard to believe their line-up would have been any worse with him in it.
Giving youngsters a go is admirable and should be applauded, but at times the side definitely missed Compton’s ability to just not get out and to stick in there. His recent retirement removes any debate about whether he should be given a go in 2019, but it still looks a tad strange to this observer.
Their bowling was better, with a figure of 38 bonus points in that department bettered only by the two promoted teams and Leicestershire, but it was clear at times that they keenly felt the absence of Toby Roland-Jones and the various injuries Steven Finn suffered throughout the campaign.
Even with ball in hand though there are questions to be asked. Tim Murtagh was his usual dependable self, taking 58 wickets at 15.31, and James Harris also had an excellent season, but none of the other bowlers took more than 28.
This meant that at times it was very much a case of Harris and Murtagh against the world, so it’s vital that next year youngsters like Ethan Bamber contribute more. Of course, having a fully-fit and firing Finn and Roland-Jones (they only managed six Championship appearances between them), should help too.
If Middlesex looked to the Royal London One Day Cup or the Vitality T20 Blast for good cheer and respite from their Championship travails, they didn’t find much joy on those fronts either.
In the 50-over format they were simply inconsistent, winning four and losing four in the South Group to finish outside the quarter-final spots. Their batting was actually quite impressive in this format, with Paul Stirling averaging 73, overseas player James Franklin 45, and Morgan 42. The bowling too was good in patches, with Ravi Patel and Tom Helm in particular impressing. This makes the decision to release Patel a slightly odd one.
If improvement in the 50-over arena led to any thoughts of a real run at the T20 Blast quarter finals, these were quickly put to bed. Middlesex were simply terrible, managing to lose 12 out of 14 group matches in the shortest format of the game, and this despite having a limited-overs side that at first glance appears ready made for death bowling and big-hitting.
How on earth a T20 side containing Eoin Morgan, Dwayne Bravo, Paul Stirling, Ashton Agar, Nick Gubbins and Dawid Malan (who is extremely unlucky to not be involved with the current England limited-overs set up) finishes dead last in their group is a mystery.
SSCC: 4th, Division Two
Vitality T20 Blast: Group Stage – 9th, South Group
RLODC: Group Stage – 6th, South Group
SSCC: Stevie Eskinazi, 740 runs
Vitality T20 Blast: Paul Stirling, 498 runs
RLODC: Paul Stirling, 515 runs
SSCC: James Harris, 61 wickets
Vitality T20 Blast: James Fuller, 15 wickets
RLODC: Ravi Patel, 15 wickets
Player of the Season
A toss-up between James Harris and Paul Stirling. Harris gets the accolade on this occasion as despite Stirling’s run-scoring efforts in both limited-overs formats, Middlesex didn’t benefit much from these as a team in terms of results.
Harris on the other hand was instrumental in helping the Middle Saxons achieve their seven Championship successes, not only taking 61 scalps with the ball but also averaging a touch over 32 with the bat (the third-highest average at the club). He has been one of the side’s most consistent performers for some time now, and will no doubt be crucial again next season.
Ethan Bamber took 28 wickets in six Championship appearances and showed himself to be a young pace bowler of real quality. He has two wise old heads in Murtagh and Harris to lean on for advice on fast bowling – not to mention Mr Fraser upstairs – and there is no reason he cannot continue his good work next season. James Fuller’s departure should also help give him more opportunities. Max Holden deserves a mention here too.
Could have done better
This could go to any of the batsmen really, but Nick Gubbins in particular may view this season as a real missed opportunity. Only averaging 34 in Division Two (with one century and three 50’s) will really frustrate this talented left-hander, especially with developments in the England set-up.
Alastair Cook’s retirement and the terrible form of Keaton Jennings meant a brilliant season for Gubbins would surely have seen him foremost in the selectors thoughts when it came to choosing replacement opener(s) – the fact that Joe Denly, a number three batsman also in Division Two, got selected shows how bare the cupboard is when it comes to other options. If and when Gubbins plays for the Lions next summer, he’ll know it represents another fantastic opportunity to show what he can do at international level.
Need to work on
Everything, really. It all depends what the priorities of new coach Stuart Law (who will formally take charge in January) are, and how they align with those of Gus Fraser.
Better performances across all formats should definitely be the overall aim (as that limited overs squad is more than capable of reaching the knockout stages in both competitions), while promotion is presumably considered a must in the Championship – especially with three teams likely to go up next season. Getting that batting order settled and firing would be a good first step.
Stuart Law not having actually taken charge yet means everything is currently all a bit up in the air when it comes to recruitment, with no players having been signed yet. They could certainly do with an experienced batsman to replace Compton and a bowling all-rounder who gives it a whack to replace Fuller.
The Championship campaign was a real disappointment, the Royal London One Day Cup was no better than average, and the T20 Blast was as terrible as Middlesex fans will have come to expect. There are good homegrown youngsters coming through, and that is a ray of hope amongst the clouds. Still – the squad can and should do much better on all fronts next year, and they know it.