Gloucestershire 19 for 1 trail Middlesex 210 (White 76*, Payne 5-31) by 191 runs
This wasn’t exactly an advert for Championship cricket. More a case of Championship cricket for adverts (specifically of the erectile dysfunction variety, as it happens) as Sky Sports cobbled together a lo-fi means to fill an IPL-shaped void in their scheduling. The solution? The dispatching of their heavies – Athers, Nasser, Keysy and Wardy – to HQ, to see what the Middlesex live stream had to offer their cricketainment-starved masses.
The answer “Robbie White” might not have been top of anyone’s list, to be fair. Nor a run-rate that protested, like a two-stroke moped, whenever it got close to 2.5 an over. Nor a dank and confused day that started as black as midnight and erupted, via two half-hearted rain-breaks, into the sort of hypothermic blue skies that cause accidental picnickers to stammer “isn’t this lovely?” through chattering teeth.
But at least there was David Payne, bending his left-arm bananas around a series of skittish defensive techniques, to claim the day’s outstanding figures of 5 for 31 in 18.5 overs. And at least there was the chance, too, for the under-sung Ryan Higgins to seize this unlikely version of the limelight. By picking off two well-crafted wickets, including the in-form Sam Robson for the day’s first scalp, Higgins took his season’s tally to 26 at 17.34, and with his batting yet to come, he could yet reinforce the sense that his numbers are more than just a trick of the Bristol light.
But overall, this was a day on which Middlesex stared their recent batting failures in the mirror, like a self-motivating drunk in a pub toilet, and ended up decorating the dancefloor once again in spite of resolving to hold it all in this time. Their innings of 210 in 80.5 overs was attritional in outlook, but lacked attrition in execution – with the honourable exception of White, who remained high and dry on 76 not out from 149 balls, as the rest of Middlesex’s top seven reached double figures without getting past 20.
White is still waiting for that elusive first-class century – he made a career-best 99 in last season’s Bob Willis Trophy, and has now passed 70 in the last four of this season’s five matches. His nine boundaries were cherry-picked at first, as he focussed on punishing the ball in his eyeline, but his confidence was beginning to flow as he eased to his fifty with a brace of fours off Daniel Worrall – a liberated cut and a pumped drive through the covers. With a bit more support at the other end, he’ll reach his promised land soon enough.
Gloucestershire, top of Group 2 after a startlingly composed start to their campaign, have leant heavily on their batting in their three wins from four, not least in their 348-run chase against Leicestershire in the last round of matches. But when given the chance to bowl first on a stereotypically “look up, not down” morning at Lord’s, Chris Dent seized the chance, and was vindicated in the final analysis, even if for long periods of their innings, Middlesex seemed to be toughing their way through to better times.
Their frailties, however, were rarely far from the surface. Robson and Max Holden peered through the gloom of the first hour to reach 23 for no loss when rain stopped play for the first time, only for Higgins to bend his second ball of the resumption down the slope and into Robson’s planted front pad for 13.
Max Holden was then suckered by a zippy nipbacker from Matt Taylor, the second left-armer in Gloucestershire’s ranks – his lack of intent condemning him for offering no shot as the ball speared back down the slope. And though Peter Handscomb avoided his third duck since arriving as Middlesex’s new captain, his dismissal was not that of a man at ease with his game. A grotesque leave as Payne curled an inswinger into his off-stump for 10 left him nursing a tally of 27 runs in five innings.
Middlesex by now were going nowhere fast, unable to stick and not daring to twist as Gloucestershire’s seamers hounded their techniques with increasing frequency. Nick Gubbins was another to succumb to Payne’s natural bend through the air, as he jabbed with hard hands for George Hankins to cling on at the second attempt at second slip, and though John Simpson showed signs of fluency with three well-timed fours in his 17, he was done like a rookie by the spin of Tom Smith. A flat tonk through mid-on one ball as Smith gave him oodles of air to chase, a confused thud of the pad the next, as Smith slipped a faster, flatter one down the slope.
Martin Andersson, not quite at the races in either of his two disciplines this season, hung around with White for a while in a 42-run stand for the sixth wicket, the best of the innings. But Taylor switched his angle to round the wicket to crash into his thrusting front pad for 20, before James Harris received the best ball of the day, a wicked full-length inswinger that burst through his gate from over the wicket before his technique could respond.
The tail came meekly – Higgins bagged his second to dislodge Ethan Bamber with an inswinger, before Payne fittingly sealed his five-for with two in three balls, as Thilan Wallalawita and Tim Murtagh were rounded up with only Wallalawita’s calypso cover drive for four to show for their efforts.
The only saving grace of a day that started terribly for Middlesex with the news of Toby Roland-Jones’ latest injury setback came in the closing minutes, as Dent and Kraigg Brathwaite got into a fearful muddle on a quick single to midwicket. Dent was run out for 10 as he scurried back whence he came, trapping his bat in the turf to hamper his progress. With the forecast set to be mixed for the coming days, the atmospherics around Lord’s could yet assist a fightback from Middlesex’s own seamers. But they’ll need to find greater resolve when their own second innings comes.
Given the expense that Sky have spared in their production, they could have picked pretty much any ground in the country this week. They could have spirited themselves to Trent Bridge, to watch the champions Essex fold for 99 as Stuart Broad got the better of Alastair Cook; to Northampton, to watch Sussex slump to 25 for 7 on a 15-wicket day, or the Ageas Bowl, where Hampshire’s April run-harvesting already feels as much of a bygone era as warm hugs and finger buffets.
But they’ve settled for the hallowed turf, with its building works and statue rumpuses, and misfiring home batters. And they’ll take what they’ve been given, come what may.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket