Signs suggest Middlesex can win first County Championship title for 23 years
PUBLISHED: 07:30 26 August 2016 | UPDATED: 15:44 26 August 2016
With just a month of the season remaining, Middlesex appear better-placed to become county champions than at any time since their last title 23 years ago.
That was a summer when runs flowed from the bats of Mike Gatting, Desmond Haynes and Keith Brown and the spin partnership of John Emburey and Phil Tufnell proved so lethal.
And who could forget the welcome sight of a younger, trimmer Angus Fraser returning from injury and trudging in to deliver consistent line and length?
Yet those memories may be shunted to one side if Middlesex’s present squad can emulate the class of 1993 and ensure that the County Championship pennant flies over Lord’s once again.
So what are the central issues that will determine whether or not James Franklin is to follow in Gatting’s footsteps by raising the trophy?
It may seem self-evident, but this Middlesex side don’t appear to be carrying any passengers and there are seasoned players such as James Harris who can hardly get a game.
Even in a summer where conditions haven’t generally been favourable towards the bowlers, Tim Murtagh, Toby Roland-Jones and Ollie Rayner have all garnered 35 championship wickets apiece.
It’s been a breakthrough season for Nick Gubbins, who is just short of 1,000 championship runs, while virtually all of Middlesex’s other frontline batsmen can boast healthy 40-plus averages.
The exception is Nick Compton, whose England travails have dominated his summer – but his steadfast century in the recent win against Durham could well indicate that he has turned a corner.
Injuries haven’t generally hit Middlesex too hard, although they will be ruing the recent hamstring injury suffered by pace bowler Steven Finn on England duty.
The news from Cricket Australia that regular skipper Adam Voges will not be returning later this month as scheduled is also a blow – but opener Sam Robson is back from injury to bolster the batting.
The squad have coped when losing players to international commitments at inconvenient times, such as Roland-Jones and Dawid Malan – both of whom ended up as unused reserves for England.
While Finn’s hamstring may rule him out of the run-in, that is offset by the return of fellow seamer James Fuller, while spinner Ravi Patel could come into the equation after missing a large chunk of the season.
In the 23 years since Middlesex last reigned supreme, each of their rivals for the crown except Somerset – who are still waiting for their first title – have won the championship at least once.
Yorkshire have been champions each of the last two seasons, while Warwickshire, Lancashire and Durham can all draw on recent experience of what is required to seize the trophy.
Apart from last year, when they pushed Yorkshire until the penultimate game and eventually finished runners-up, Middlesex have not even been involved in the latter stages of a championship race.
Few members of their squad have experienced that with other counties either, although Murtagh was emerging last time Surrey won the title and Rayner was part of the Sussex side that finished top in 2006 and 2007.
Defeat has become almost an alien concept to Middlesex lately – they are unbeaten this summer, displaying a ruthless, steely streak and refusing to let the opposition off the hook – illustrated by innings victories over Hampshire and Durham.
There were similar examples at Scarborough, where Yorkshire were dispatched despite posting a first- innings total in excess of 400, and at Taunton, when Franklin’s side successfully chased down 300.
Even a below-par performance, such as the recent game against Surrey, was rescued by Franklin and George Bailey, whose gritty stand on the final afternoon forced a draw.
In recent years, there’s little doubt that Middlesex’s dreadful Twenty20 form has spilled into their four-day campaign, affecting confidence.
This season, greater consistency and qualification for the T20 quarter-finals for the first time since 2008 helped the likes of Malan, Paul Stirling, Roland-Jones and Fuller to replicate their positive efforts in other formats as well.
Losing to eventual winners Northamptonshire was certainly no disgrace – arguably, the campaign ended at just the right time for Middlesex to concentrate all their efforts on the County Championship.