Close of Play – Middlesex 170ao and 77/5 ; Essex 266ao and 211ao; Middlesex require 231 runs to win with 5 wickets remaining.
Day 3 of any 4 or 5 day match is often described as ‘moving day’, and although Essex began their 2nd innings with a handy lead of 96 runs, the home side knew that if they started strongly they would be right back in the game with an opportunity to chase a 4th innings target of manageable proportions on a pitch that was still offering something for the seamers, but where batters could prosper with the right mix of application and attacking intent.
However, the first hour produced a sedate and unthreatening start from Ryan Higgins, Toby Roland-Jones and Tim Murtagh with the new ball with the exception of one very close LBW shout against Sir Alistair Cook from Ryan Higgins which probably would have been overturned if DRS was in place. The home side bowlers looked short of a gallop at times with their lack of pre-season match practice looking all too apparent.
Sir Alistair Cook and Nick Browne produced 50 partnership for 1st wicket at nearly 4 an over taking game away from Middlesex until Browne spooned a gentle catch to Mark Stoneman at extra cover to leave Essex 52/1 and already 148 runs ahead. Higgins then picked up Sir Alistair Cook with a fine caught and bowled for 28 to give the home side a much-needed double breakthrough with them behind the eight ball. Westley fell shortly after thanks to a leg-side strangle off Tim Murtagh to leave Essex 68/3 and the game tilting back towards the home side, especially if they can pick up some more quick wickets before lunch. The overriding feeling was more that the Essex batters gifted their wickets rather than the Middlesex bowlers getting them out.
Dan Lawrence and Matt Critchley then combined with some flair and grit in equal measure to see the visitors safely through to lunch with no further losses and the Essex lead of 198 at lunch looking imposing, but not yet at the point of being out of sight for the home side but needing a few quick wickets to keep the target within reach.
After the break, Lawrence targeted the leg spin of Luke Hollman with his customary flair with a couple of powerfully hit cover drives, backed up by Matt Critchley producing a couple of his own off Ryan Higgins as a flurry of runs took the wind out of the home side’s sails somewhat. Higgins then struck back to produce a beauty seaming one away down the slope from the Pavilion End to nick off Dan Lawrence for 37, but with Essex still on top leading by 218 with six wickets in hand. Hollman then enticed Adam Rossington into an expansive drive second ball and only succeeded into edging to Stevie Eskinazi at slip for 0. At this point, considering the visitors somewhat fragile tail end batting, the home side potentially had a glimmer of hope if they could strike again quickly.
The visitors then poured cold water on the home sides hopes with a flurry of boundaries to move the lead beyond 250, with Matt Critchley looking confident alongside Simon Harmer. The home side then managed to slow the scoring rate with some accurate bowling and a tight ring field to prevent Critchley and Harmer rotating the strike, as play settled into a gentle afternoon pace. An edge off Murtagh to third man brought up the 50 for Matt Critchley off 72 balls, an innings full of solid defence and attacking intent which has helped to move the game away from the hosts. Murtagh picked him up LBW shortly afterwards to a decision which Critchley did not appear to look happy with at the time but looked reasonably adjacent on the replay. The veteran seamer was starting to look like his usual nagging and accurate self, having looked somewhat rusty in the first innings. He picked up his fourth wicket of Harmer LBW shortly after for 26 with the lead standing at 280 with three Essex wickets remaining. Win Viz may have tilted slightly back in Middlesex’s favour, but Essex is likely to still have felt comfortable with their lead. Shane Snater and Ben Allison combined to edge the lead up towards 300 before Tom Helm bowled Snater on the stroke of tea for 19, with Essex score at tea 210/8. The Middlesex top order would have to start thinking about a potentially awkward evening session with memories of the first innings carnage fresh in their memory.
Luke Hollman opened up after the tea break and induced a loose drive to Higgins at cover from Sam Cook for 2 just two balls into the evening session without further addition to the score. Tom Helm then quickly removed Jamie Porter for a five-ball duck to leave the hosts chasing 308 to win in around 4 sessions. Essex well on top, Middlesex needing their batters to come to the party in a tricky run chase. Firstly, they had 36 overs to negotiate in the evening session against a high-quality new ball attack that decimated them in the 1st innings.
The first over of the Middlesex innings produced a sense of déjà vu as Mark Stoneman fell for a third ball duck after being rapped on the pads by Jamie Porter. At this point, Middlesex’s top 4 was 0/5 for the match. Pieter Malan then broke the run of top order ducks with a pushed single into the covers to ironic cheers from the crowd. Sam Cook also decided to go pad hunting and removed Sam Robson LBW for 3 to leave the home side in further trouble at 4/2. The umpires were certainly being kept busy with Robson being the 11th batter to fall LBW in the game.
The Essex new ball pair were relentless in their lines and lengths, and barely gave the batters a breather with a tight off-stump line which gave the batters few scoring opportunities. Malan continued the procession, falling LBW (yet again) for 4 to Sam Cook, with the hosts floundering at 15/3, relative heady heights compared to the first innings. Max Holden and Stevie Eskinazi managed to steady the ship somewhat with the ball still flying past their outside edge regularly but fought through to create a few scoring opportunities for themselves, especially Holden who looked to apply pressure back onto the bowlers as per the ‘Bazball’ method until Simon Harmer skidded one past an attempted paddle sweep and was (yep you guessed it) LBW for 25. With 20 overs remaining in the day, and the score at 41/4 it was looking like a miracle was needed to rescue the hosts from this situation. Eskinazi and John Simpson dug in to avoid the spectacle of a three-day finish which looked possible at one point. The fifth wicket pair batted through most of the session, and although neither looked particularly free flowing, but placed a high price on their wickets and looked relatively untroubled (one close run out shout apart) even if the run rate was reduced to a crawl but put on 35 for the fifth wicket until Critchley picked up Simpson in the penultimate over of the day when Simpson returned a tough caught and bowled chance off a rank full toss to go for 19 off 71 balls having done all the hard work. Stevie Eskinazi battled his way to 24 off 83 balls, with nightwatchman Tom Helm negotiating the final three balls of the day from Simon Harmer to finish 0 not out. This was a day of proper old fashioned county championship cricket, and an absorbing contest to boot.