The first session of the day was undoubtedly won by Middlesex. I have been writing about Middlesex for a long time now, and I have been watching them for even longer, so excuse me if I run out of superlatives to describe Tim Murtagh. Instead, I am just going to state the facts.
Murtagh was bowling on a green top, at Lord’s, in April and I am sure you can work out the rest. He quickly accounted for the wickets of Rory Burns and Hashim Amla in the same over (the latter departing for a duck) and immediately, Surrey were forced onto the back foot.
The session did also feature a nice cameo from Ollie Pope, including one of his signature cover drives, but after a classy and seemingly comfortable 22 he somewhat gave his wicket away, playing down the wrong line to Toby Roland-Jones. However, to be fair to Pope, the Middlesex all-rounder was extracting every ounce of movement and bounce from the pitch and looking in really good form whilst he did so.
Credit is also due to Sam Robson who took two smart catches in the cordon and before long, Surrey, having been put into bat, were reduced to 72 for four, with Ben Foakes edging through to the keeper off the bowling of Roland-Jones; A strong start for Peter Hanscombe in his first match as captain.
Mark Stoneman looked good for his 44, playing some flowing drives through the covers but every time the hands went to the ball you felt the Middlesex seamers were inching closer to his wicket. The pitch was by no means a minefield, but with one ball jumping from a length and the next clipping the under-edge of the bat, one felt there was far more in it for the bowlers; seemingly a good call to put the visitors in by the new skipper then.
It was not Stoneman, though, who would be next to fall, but rather his partner to this point Jamie Smith who fell victim to a classy nip backer from the evergreen Murtagh that slipped between bat and pad before just clipping the top of middle and off. Surrey, then, five down and Middlesex knowing they were only two more wickets away from exposing a rather long tail-end.
Not to be outdone, Toby Roland-Jones did finally take Stoneman’s wicket. All-day, Roland-Jones had been finding extra bounce in the pitch, as he so often does, and it was that extra bounce that Stoneman failed to deal with. He picked the length late and failed to get on the front foot or back foot, hanging out a limp defensive shot that the ball clipped before flying comfortably through to the awaiting gloves of John Simpson.
So, it was a Clark / Clarke partnership to attempt to salvage the innings for Surrey. Or not. Jordan Clark, seemingly frustrated at failing to score off his first 5 balls, slashed at a length delivery from Murtagh serving a comfortable catch to Gubbins at cover. A shot that, probably, did not need to be played, should not have been played and left Surrey on 107 with three number 11s left to bat.
Reece Topley managed to survive a few overs, playing a nice on-drive to the boundary (with the assistance of some questionable fielding) in the process, and Rikki Clarke settled with a gorgeous lean-back, swing-through cover drive, but this was always going to be an uphill battle with the bat for Surrey’s bowlers.
After another boundary, this time between the slip cordon and point, Topley was toppled by Middlesex youngster Ethan Bamber. A frustrating day for him as the most expensive seamer, but he does continue to find a way to deliver wickets for the Seaxes; he has definitely been the most impressive of the young core so far.
Kemar Roach and Clarke did manage to put up more of a fight, and the score crept up to 153 before spin proved decisive. Luke Hollman, on red-ball debut, with a flighted delivery that dipped past a slash of the bat from Roach bowling him for 8. Perhaps not a ball that would have taken the wicket of a top-order batsman, but a wicket none the less and I am sure Luke Hollman will be pleased to be averaging 4 in first-class cricket.
After a great team bowling display, it seemed fitting that no single bowler took all the headlines. The highlight of the innings may even have been the moment that ended it, a fantastic direct hit from the deep fired in by Nick Gubbins to run-out Clarke on 28. This was a top all-round performance from the home side, finally pressing home their advantage and restricting Surrey to 153 all out.
After the innings break, the Middlesex openers did not manage to settle any nerves. After bowling out their local rivals for just over 150 a fan should be able to celebrate, but this top-order fails to inspire any confidence.
Another man lacking confidence is no doubt Max Holden; a top score of ten and a single figure average for the season so far, he once again failed after pushing at a Topley delivery outside off, providing catching practice for Burns (who did well to hang on with Pope jumping across him).
Next was Gubbins, who so far has failed to hit the dizzying heights of form he found in last year’s Bob Willis trophy, but this was a much better delivery. A slower, dipping Yorker that ignited memories of Harrison in 2005 and you really could not blame Gubbins for missing it.
Well, welcome to Middlesex Mr Hanscombe. I know you think you are batting at four but it is probably best if you get used to getting the pads on early. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t look quite ready and maybe he expected too much from the Lord’s slope or maybe he didn’t quite find his balance, but either way he played down the wrong line and suddenly Topley had three wickets for seven runs and Middlesex were floundering on 17 for 3.
So often, this top order fails to build partnerships. When you are chasing 154, you don’t need to score daddy hundreds, you just need to put together 10,20 run partnerships; the Seaxes just cannot seem to do that.
Sam Robson and Robbie White held firm for a period, defending resolutely, leaving well, and putting bad balls away, but this kind of attritional, partnership building batting is how Middlesex need to start their innings, it simply cannot begin after three wickets have already fallen if they are going to be successful.
This period of relative calm for Middlesex was welcome, but it also illustrated that the pitch was showing no sign of quieting down. For every five balls in an over that behaved themselves, there was one that kept low or leapt up, seemingly without any kind of identifiable pattern; just enough to always keep the Surrey bowlers interested. This was not enough to stop White or Robson, though, who continued to ebb away at Surrey’s total, bringing up their 50 partnership off 136 balls.
Once that first 50 was on the board, everything seemed a bit easier for Middlesex. White played some exquisite drives and rode his luck well before going to 52 in the final over of the day, flaying Clark through the covers for four in the process. He was ably accompanied and supported by Robson, who played another calm and assured knock, finishing on 46*.
Today felt like a day when Middlesex could have very easily been very Middlesex-y. There was a moment when they looked to be letting the tail put on runs after bowling out the top order as they did against Somerset, but they didn’t. There was a moment when it looked like the top order was going to crumble again as it did against Hampshire, but it didn’t.
Instead, they restricted a strong batting unit to 154 and finished the day on 114-3 just two runs short of a 100 fourth-wicket partnership.
Shaky moments aside, this was a great day for the Seaxes.