Middlesex season review: Second place is superb, but one-day deficiencies are still there
Middlesex’s season may have ended with a crushing defeat – but that should not mask a year of tangible progress in the County Championship.
Clinging on to a top-flight place by the skin of their teeth in 2014, the Lord’s side improved vastly to claim the runners-up spot for the first time in two decades.
Until last week’s horror show at Worcester, their only defeat in four-day cricket had come at the hands of champions Yorkshire – who swept aside just about everyone else to claim their second successive title.
Yet, while Middlesex’s impressive showing in the County Championship gives genuine cause for optimism, it can be balanced by another display of general mediocrity in one-day cricket.
So what were the highs and lows of the 2015 campaign – and which are the issues that must be addressed in the next six months?
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Difficult to beat: Middlesex displayed a steely edge in four-day cricket not seen in recent years, frequently digging themselves out of a hole to avoid defeat – and sometimes even win the game.
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Examples of that were seen as early as the second match of the season, when they conceded over 400 in the first innings at Taunton – and then chased down 400-plus to beat Somerset on the final day.
And few would have given Middlesex a prayer when they were bowled out for 106 by Yorkshire at Lord’s, but the home side turned the game around to inflict the champions’ only loss of the campaign.
Breakthrough year for James Harris: After two seasons in which the ex-Glamorgan seamer had struggled with both fitness and form, everything seemed to click for him in 2015.
Few who witnessed it will forget his career-best figures of 9-34 to blow Durham away at Lord’s in May and a season’s total of 69 Championship wickets was bettered only by the North East county’s Chris Rushworth.
Harris also made real strides as an obdurate lower-middle order batsman with three Championship half-centuries to his name, and must now be regarded as one of the first names on the teamsheet.
Dawid Malan’s purple patch: Despite two separate injury absences during the early part of the season, the classy left-hander built on his renaissance of 2014 with consistent batting in all forms of the game.
Although it ultimately counted for nothing, Malan’s undefeated knock of 156 against Glamorgan in the Royal London One-day Cup was surely one of the best limited-overs innings seen at Lord’s in recent times.
That kind of form deservedly earned him a call-up to the England Lions squad – while Nick Compton appears unlucky to have missed out on a recall to the senior side after amassing more than 1,100 runs in Championship cricket.
James Franklin’s captaincy: The all-rounder was unexpectedly handed the reins not once, but twice after international commitments ruled out first Adam Voges and then Eoin Morgan.
The former New Zealand international made a good fist of the job, taking a positive approach – as shown by his bold attempt to force a result in the Somerset game at Old Merchant Taylor’s School.
It remains to be seen what Middlesex’s plans are regarding the captaincy for 2016, but Franklin has surely done his chances of continuing in the job no harm at all.
First innings fragility: If only bonus points were awarded for the second innings instead of the first, Middlesex would have got a good deal closer to Yorkshire.
As it was, they collected fewer batting points than any other team bar Durham – whose Chester-le-Street ground tends to be bowler-friendly – and were frequently reliant on their own pacemen to redress the balance.
As already mentioned, Middlesex’s tenacity in clawing games back was admirable – but clearly it would be preferable not to fall behind in the first place.
Twenty20 shortcomings: Middlesex’s failure to muster a competitive challenge in this tournament cannot have come as any surprise to those who have watched them flounder in T20 cricket for some years.
Do they lack the players, the strategy, or the consistency? Certainly the latter, it would seem – three of Middlesex’s four victories came against opponents who did qualify for the last eight.
As usual, they did better in the 50-over competition – but, just as predictably, not quite well enough to reach the knockout stages.
Eoin Morgan: Middlesex’s one-day captain scratched around with the bat for most of the season, passing 50 only once in the 19 senior appearances he made.
And it seemed farcical that Morgan was allowed to sit out the second half of Middlesex’s 50-over campaign entirely, purely on the basis that a rest would be beneficial to the England one-day side he also leads.
Regaining his ECB central contract is good news for both Morgan and Middlesex – and surely it will force the county to look elsewhere for their limited-overs leader.
Overseas chaos: Granted, nobody could have forecast that Voges’ unexpected Ashes call-up would rob Middlesex of their overseas signing for much of the season.
However, the Lord’s side engaged another four overseas players during the season – with Joe Burns often forced into an unfamiliar role as opener, where he was rarely able to shine.
As for the bowlers, Mitchell McClenaghan looked the best of the bunch – but Kyle Abbott, aside from a five-for at Sussex, and Junaid Khan both flattered to deceive.
Both the captaincy and the overseas slot appear to be up for grabs and, while Voges may be Middlesex’s preferred option, there are still rumours of a return for ex-skipper Chris Rogers, now retired from Test cricket.
If they choose to split the captain’s role again, Middlesex need to replace Morgan, with Franklin, Malan or perhaps wicketkeeper John Simpson among the obvious candidates to lead them in one-day cricket.
Morgan’s ECB contract should also free up some finance – which they must use to strengthen the batting.
Even with Steven Finn regaining his Test place, the bowling department – staffed by the likes of Harris, Tim Murtagh, Toby Roland-Jones and new arrival James Fuller – looks strong.
However, the departure of Neil Dexter to Leicestershire leaves Middlesex with just one genuine all-rounder and they may need to try and recruit another.