Bracey shines as Middlesex struggle

Bracey shines as Middlesex struggle

The morning seemed to start well for Middlesex. Both opening bowlers, Ethan Bamber and Tim Murtagh, bowled tight and dry, beating the edge of both Kraigg Braithwaite and Matt Taylor but failed to find the edge of either man’s bat. 

The night-watchman Taylor was eventually accounted for after a bowling change, the young all-rounder Martin Anderson’s neat out-swinger enough to catch a prodding, half-shot from Taylor. Only 13 runs scored, but he would have been well aware that his job had already been completed the night before. 

The wicket brought the in-form James Bracey to the crease. The Gloucestershire man already has four 50+ scores to his name in 2021 at an average of 57.57. Alongside a now set and comfortable Braithwaite, Gloucestershire’s number four looked at home at the crease; something which so many of Middlesex’s batsmen could not manage the day before. 

This comfort and confidence manifested itself in runs for Gloucestershire. The returning James Harris was the most expensive bowler of the session with an economy of 3.6, but none of the Middlesex bowling unit (who have all looked potent at times this season) could seem to trouble Braithwaite or Bracey. 

Moreover, Bamber had to be replaced by Thilan Walallawita late in the session, because of what looked like some kind of muscle pain. He could be seen chatting to the physio on the boundary before limping off for lunch. 

On the other side of the fixture, it was a great morning for Gloucestershire. The visitors ended the session on 87-2 with an unbroken third-wicket partnership of 44. The other big win for the team from the South-West was that they never really looked uncomfortable at the crease. As for Middlesex, they would have to hope that some warmer air and cloud cover could help them to find more movement from the ball than any of their bowlers could muster in the first two hours of the day. 

To their credit, that is exactly what the home side did. Harris opened up from the pavilion end and it was not long before he found the breakthrough. He looked intent on bowling back of a length and he managed to tempt Braithwaite into slashing at a short ball wide outside his off-stump. It was a rare lapse of discipline from the West Indian and, with the ball coming on a bit higher and faster than this pitch had looked for most of the match, a top edge provided enough of a chance for Sam Robson to take a great, diving catch at full-stretch.

It was a phenomenal bit of fielding but a huge disappointment for Brathwaite.

Murtagh was next to get in on the act, pitching the ball up to new man Tom Lace and trapping him dead in front of his stumps in the process. The air at Lord’s had warmed slightly from the morning session and, along with some welcome cloud cover, Murtagh was finally finding some substantial lateral movement through the air. 

This marked the first hour of the day that Middlesex had won, but with Bracey still at the crease and scoring comfortably, one felt the Seaxes were still a long way from taking control of this match. 

Middlesex did have their chance to change this when Bracey drove at another full ball from Murtagh, but Martin Andersson was not able to hold on to a tough low chance, fielding at a sort of hybrid backward point/gully position. It probably came at him too fast, but had he been any further away there was no chance the ball would have carried.

Bad luck for Andersson and Murtagh, a missed opportunity for Middlesex, and a lifeline for James Bracey.

Ethan Bamber returned in the next over and Middlesex fans will be pleased to hear he looked completely unencumbered; any injury that he may have picked up in the morning session had faded away after a Lucozade and a lie-down in the lunch break. A huge relief, both for Bamber who is having a fantastic season and Middlesex, who have already lost Toby Roland-Jones to injury this week. 

Fair to say, as the session went on, the drop of Bracey was beginning to look more and more costly. Both batsmen looked un-phased by the Middlesex bowling attack and quite happy to slowly and steadily erode away at the deficit. 

Bracey did seem to hover in the high 40s for what seemed like an eternity; right up until I mentioned how long he had been stuck there to a colleague in the press box – at which point he danced down the pitch to greet a Walallawita delivery and send it straight back over his head for a four that took him to 52*. A great innings, but one that Middlesex could have cut short well before this milestone.  

Both Bracey and Ian Cockbain were still standing when Gloucestershire crossed the 150 mark. All drama had, at this point, been sucked out of the game and Middlesex looked completely bereft of ideas. Bracey was so comfortable that he again decided to take on the bowling of Walallawita, hitting him for four and six (only his second of the season so far) off successive balls. All one could think whilst watching him bat was how easy he made it look. 

Cockbain quickly followed Bracey to 50, a score which came off just 78 balls and included some brilliant boundary hitting. From the moment he came to the crease he looked comfortable and seemingly happy to pick up right where he left off last week. 

Strangely though, he was then clean bowled by a gorgeous in-swinger from Harris of all people. A puzzling moment, not least because Cockbain had played so well and Harris had played so poorly to that point. Still, a nice way to go to 500 first-class wickets. 

Harris will be aware that he has to fill a Toby Roland-Jones shaped hole for Middlesex, and he will also be aware that has not done that so far. However, two wickets today despite bowling below his usual standards with two days left to play leaves a nice chance for improvement.

Ryan Higgins was next in, and he looked in even more of a hurry to score runs than Cockbain had been; part of that hurry might have been down to his partners not being able to stay at the crease with him. Within 10 overs, the visitors were reduced from 191-4 to 235-7, Andersson taking the vital wicket of Bracey – having dropped him earlier – and then the wicket of George Hankins. 

Higgins managed a quick-fire 49 from just 43 balls before Murtagh took his second of the day (another LWB) and Bamber mopped up the tail, accounting for both Tom Smith and David Payne. Gloucestershire 273 all-out, a first-innings lead of 63 but maybe just leaving the door slightly ajar to an unlikely Middlesex comeback. 

Unfortunately, that door seemed to quickly slam shut when Sam Robson, Max Holden, and Peter Handscomb all fell for scores in the single figures, reducing the Seaxes to just 23-3 with overs still to play.

So, who did the home side once again turn to? Their bowlers. Bamber served as night-watchman, facing 13 balls without scoring a run and stumps were called with the score at 26-3; Middlesex trailing by 37 runs.  

Another bad day at Lord’s for Middlesex, but it could quite easily have been even worse. Once again, the bowling attack had to fight their way out of a hole that they had been put into by their own batters. They will be hoping that the rain comes to their aide tomorrow; the less time they have to spend at the crease the better for them. 

That aside, it was another great day for James Bracey. He was by far the best player on the day and arguably the best player in the match so far. He put on a clinic for the cameras of Sky Sports, drew praise from the commentary team and the rest of the press box, and it is easy to see why he is drawing so much attention from the England set-up.

If Bracey continues to score runs like this, he will be at the front of the queue for a call-up during a busy summer of international cricket. 

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