A strong start from Middlesex was wasted today, as Hampshire were put firmly in the driving seat after great innings from Joe Weatherley, Sam Northeast, and Liam Dawson, the last of which being unfortunately ended by what looks to be a serious ankle injury.
Middlesex started brightly, continued to turn the screw after their overnight success with the ball, with Tom Helm making the early breakthrough. After building pressure with a maiden, finding great bounce off a length, Helm managed to find the edge of Tom Alsop in his second over. John Simpson took a great catch high above his head to send Hampshire’s number four back to the hut for only four runs.
With seven overs gone, and Middlesex leading the day 6-1, all signs were looking bright in sunny rural Hertfordshire.
Northeast responded in the very next over, however, pulling a short ball from James Harris through square-leg for the first boundary of the day. He followed that with a picture perfect on-drive back down the ground for four more.
Weatherley joined in with an almost carbon copy on-drive off the bowling of Helm, but some great fielding from Middlesex saved the boundary. All the same, the counter attack seemed to have begun.
It was at this point that Steve Eskinazi did what many Middlesex captains have done before him (and probably what many will do after him as well) – he turned to Tim Murtagh. His first over saw a streaky inside-edge miss race past the stumps and down to fine-leg, before rapping the pads of Weatherley. The appeal for LWB was somewhat optimistic, but the momentum had shifted again and pressure was back on Hampshire.
Over after over, Murtagh found the edge again and again but it never seemed to carry. Regardless, both batsmen continued to push hard at the ball and, whilst Weatherley did finally manage to take Murtagh to the boundary, both batsmen failed to look completely comfortable at the crease.
This was summed up when Northeast, on 14, thick-edged a full ball from Martin Andersson that stung the fingers of a diving Nathan Sowter at second slip. A tough chance, but a chance all the same and only time would tell how costly that drop would be.
False shots seemed to be coming thick and fast, but Andersson and Murtagh just could not seem to make the breakthrough.
Weatherley definitely looked the more settled of the two batsmen, and his growing dominance was summarised brilliantly when he swatted a short ball from Harris through mid wicket for four runs. He then followed that up with a pull from another short ball from Harris for four more, and looked to be pulling the match back into Hampshire’s favour.
It looked as though Harris was about to have the last laugh though, as he pitched it up and again found the outside edge, only for Sowter to put it down again. This was a much easier chance, carrying low, but at a catchable height for a second slip at county level.
Weatherley thus survived on 26, and it looked like Middlesex might just be digging their own grave. Another aspect of this is the number of extras conceded in the session; at 16, extras were the third top scorer.
Soon after Sowter’s drop the 50 partnership come up for Hampshire, and welcome milestone it was considering how often it had looked as though they would not get there.
It was spin to finish off the morning, with Sowter and Thilan Walallawita bowling in tandem for the last 15 minutes of the session. Both Hampshire bats seemed buoyed by their partnership and finally looked comfortable at the crease, exchanging strike and accumulating at a steady pace.
So, with 74 runs being added for the loss of only one wicket, the session belonged to Hampshire. You do however feel that, having had Hampshire on 28-3 early on in the session and having dropped both in batsmen on 14 and 26 (now boasting 28 and 36 respectively), the session really should really have belonged to Middlesex.
Hampshire resumed after the lunch interval with much the same intensity, Weatherley playing a lovely clip off his legs for four in the first over back after the break. Northeast looked just as assured, dispatching Murtagh’s first ball for four over the long on boundary.
Middlesex needed a breakthrough, but one did not look forthcoming. This point was emphasised by the confidence with which Weatherley again swatted a short ball Helm through mid-on, with a cricket-come-tennis shot for four more.
The oddest part of this section of the game is that, whilst Hampshire were motoring, Middlesex had bowled extremely well. Helm was extracting great pace and bounce from the pitch, Murtagh had hit the pads on multiple occasions and both Harris and Andersson had found the edge; they just could not find that killer blow.
When that is the case, batsmen in good nick will profit and Weatherley and Northeast were both proving themselves to be in very good nick. Weatherley was in such good nick, in fact, that he brought up his fifty with a lovely flick through the mid-wicket region for four. The man who was dropped on 26 from a regulation slip catch had made sure to punish Middlesex’s mistake.
Middlesex did eventually make the break through just before tea, with Northeast miscuing a cut to Sowter (atoning for his earlier drop) at backward point having just reached his 50. This was followed by Weatherley’s wicket after tea who was trapped LBW by Murtagh – who deserved his wicket considering how many times he had hit the pads to no avail – just two runs shy of his century.
These wickets were vital, but the damage was already done. Middlesex also failed to capitalise on their breakthroughs, as Dawson and Ian Holland put on 51 for the sixth wicket. It was Dawson who played the aggressor in this stand, but his day came to an unfortunate end as he fell awkwardly and appeared to seriously injure his ankle. After receiving treatment in the middle, he was eventually stretchered from the field and retired hurt.
Holland and Harry Came were able to take Hampshire past the Seaxes’ total, but were soon dismissed by Murtagh and Sowter respectively. This left Hampshire on 279-7, 27 runs ahead with two days to play and two innings to go.
Middlesex’s job is now clear: clean up the tail before it wags Hampshire’s lead out of their reach.