How do you solve a problem like Middlesex? I asked the same question last year but we were not able to ascertain an answer. The sleeping giants of the County Championship will undoubtedly be disappointed with how they have performed in the longest form of the game since their last title win in 2016, but the new format on offer this season will likely be a challenge they are keen to take on.
The objective is clear: prove that Middlesex can compete with teams that, until the changes to the competition that take effect this year, were competing in a division above the Seaxes.
Last year was supposed to be the start of a new era – with Law taking control, Dawid Malan, departing, and Peter Hanscomb taking the captaincy, we were supposed to see an end to intra-squad quibbles and power struggles; it was supposed to be a team fighting on a united front.
Obviously, the season was somewhat of a damp squib in the end, but it was for reasons completely out of all of our control.
However, thanks to the changes that were in part brought about by the inaugural and hugely successful Bob Willis Trophy, now Middlesex get to test themselves against opposition that they will believe is their level.
Last year’s red-ball captain Stephen Eskinazi said that they now have “the opportunity now to play against… some of the better, bigger Division 1 sides who’ve been playing the best cricket in the last few years”. If they have a chance on not just playing but competing with these sides, Eskinazi is one of a few batsmen who will need to improve on their 2020 stat lines.
A century in pre-season against Surrey is a good sign, but Nick Gubbins will need much more support in the top 4 that was forthcoming in the Bob Willis trophy. If the likes of Hanscomb, Gubbins, Sam Robson and Eskinazi can provide some more top-order stability and a now fully fit Toby Roland-Jones, ever-steady John Simpson, and exciting youngster Martin Andersson can continue to contribute down the order, there are few sides with as exciting a seam attack as Middlesex.
Don’t put any money on Middlesex winning the County Championship this season, but there is a sense that a phoenix may finally be rising from the ashes. The years ahead should be very, very exciting.
Outs: Dan Lincoln (released), Miguel Cummins (Kent)
Overseas Signings: Peter Hanscomb, Mitch Marsh (For T20)
There is only one man that deserves attention in this section – Toby Roland-Jones. He was blighted with injury in the 2020 season, but he has been on song in pre-season and, if he can perform in the way we know he can with both ball and bat, he will be the envy of many a county.
Player to Watch
It is a matter of keeping an eye on the youngsters; players like Thilan Walallawita, Ethan Bamber, Martin Andersson, Max Holden, Luke Hollman, and even a certain Josh De Caires who recently hit a very handy ton for Leeds/Bradford MCC Universities against a strong Yorkshire bowling attack (apparently he’s related to an ex-England opener who was a handy bat in his day).
It is not clear which of these youngsters will take their chance this year, as Andersson seized his last season, but it is clear that the Seaxes have invested heavily in their future and it will be intriguing to see this collection of raw talent grow and hone their skills.
How they’ll fare
Middlesex will know that they have an uphill battle ahead of them. What is clear is that a lot of pressure will be placed on their batting line-up. Gubbins had a fantastic 2020, whilst youngsters Robbie White and Holden found some form in the top order, and Simpson and Andersson both contributed runs down the order. Unfortunately, Eskinazi and Robson did not hit the same heights.
One thing is for sure: Middlesex will feel that they belong among the likes of Surrey and Somerset. Their youth core is strong and there is not another seam attack that looks as potent, but their chances will hinge on how their top order can perform. Eskinazi looked in good nick, hitting a ton in pre-season, and Hanscomb should also beef up a top-four that struggled last year. If the Seaxes find runs up top, it could be a good year in North London.
Opening Fixture: April 8-11, Middlesex vs Somerset, Lord’s, LV County Championship
Season Odds (www.skybet.com):
LV County Championship: 12/1
Bob Willis Trophy: 12/1
Royal London One-Day Cup: 10/1
Vitality Twenty20 Blast: 10/1