Roland-Jones buoys relegation-threatened Middlesex

Roland-Jones buoys relegation-threatened Middlesex

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Lord’s, September 19 – 21, 2017

, Specsavers County Championship Division One


Toby Roland-Jones added wickets to a half-century before limping off with “lower back stiffness” as Middlesex fought for their Division One lives against Lancashire

Lancashire 113 for 5 trail Middlesex 233 (Roland-Jones 53, Rayner 52, Bailey 5-54) by 120 runs

Middlesex were hoping for a spicy wicket for their penultimate match of the season to stave off Division Two. They might have got more than they bargained for. After 15 wickets fell on the first day against Lancashire – including ten of their own – they must ensure they can emerge on the right side of an inevitable black-and-white result here at Lord’s.

The tops and tails of the day were bleak for the hosts. Opting to bat first on a pitch worn by a season’s graft that they felt would get worse, they were reduced to 28 for 4, as Ryan McLaren and Tom Bailey ran riot. Then, with three overs left in the day, Toby Roland-Jones trudged off, unable to complete his 11th over. The groans from the pavilion, stocked as full as you would expect for the last match of the season at Lord’s, could be felt from the other side of the ground.

Adam Voges, Middlesex captain for this match after James Franklin took the decision to drop himself, left the dressing room with Roland-Jones receiving treatment on the physios table to speculated that it was “lower back stiffness”. Thankfully for him and Middlesex, the bitterness bookended a virtuoso display from the England seamer.

Roland-Jones’ first contribution was with the bat, firefighting some outrageous movement through the air and off the surface with the abandon of a man who had never been burned before. That he came in at 81 for 6 – soon after 89 for 7, when John Simpson was caught behind for 29, at which point Voges began regretting his decision to bat after winning the toss – seemed at odds with his approach: hitting through the ball, picking up length early and ticking along at almost a run a ball to bring up his fifty from 58, featuring 10 fours.

The pitch was green and played to type, but with the pitch already in a state where “plates” were evident on the first morning, Voges decided he would rather bat first than last. The eighth-wicket stand ensured that was still likely to be the case.

Crucially, Ollie Rayner matched Roland-Jones’ valour at the other end, in a 102-run stand that arrived in 20.5 overs. The appreciation of their work came when the scoreboard moved on to 178 for 7, with applause ringing out for doubling the score that they met on.

A questionable lbw decision ended Roland-Jones’ stay and gave Kyle Jarvis a deserved wicket, but Rayner was able to complete his half-century with a neat four through cover from his 72nd ball. Eight down, Middlesex brought up their 200 for a bonus point that momentarily took them out of the relegation places before Somerset did the same in south London to switch positions back. No. 11 Tim Murtagh, who played all of his 17 balls from somewhere near square leg, slapped a quick 18 before becoming the last wicket to fall to see Middlesex bowled out for 233 in two sessions. Bailey finished with season’s best figures of 5 for 54 – his fourth five-wicket haul in first class cricket.

Naturally, Lancashire started steadily, and when Alex Davies was dropped by Simpson for 9 in Roland-Jones’ first over – the very next ball flew through third slip – Middlesex feared the worst. But, as per the morning, a flurry of wickets up front soon arrived: Roland-Jones trapping Haseeb Hameed lbw for a 30-ball 3 at the end of the eighth, before Davies left a straight one from Murtagh at the start of the ninth. Dane Vilas was then bowled for Murtagh’s second, before Steven Finn was given a gift by Liam Livingstone, who slapped a long-hop straight to Nick Compton at point.

Out strode Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 43-years-savvy, eyeing up 27,000 first class runs. Middlesex’s insecurities came to the fore: they have spoken openly about an odd blindspot in their game – a struggle in dismissing left-handers and overseas batsmen. Dean Elgar and Kumar Sangakkara have already frustrated them this summer. Here was 164-Tests worth ready to do the same. However, returning for a final spell, Roland-Jones, from around the wicket, was able to draw a false stroke from Chanderpaul, caught by Voges at first slip, and Lancashire were 95 for 5.

Two overs later, Roland-Jones appealed for a caught behind off McLaren and stopped short of making it all the way down the pitch. He was bent over, wincing, as Finn walked in from mid-off to check on his well-being. Rayner completed his over. Promisingly for Middlesex and England – Roland-Jones is expected to make the Ashes touring party – he felt able enough to field, but was advised by Voges to leave for treatment. An assessment will be made in the morning but Middlesex hope he will have more cameos to play before this game is over.

It is almost a year to the day since Roland-Jones sealed Middlesex’s first Championship in 23 years with a hat-trick at Lord’s. It seems longer given that the same side are battling against relegation and doing so while the captain who delivered them that success watches, fully fit, from the sidelines.

It was in a toilet cubicle that Franklin thrashed out the details of a final-innings run chase with Yorkshire captain Andrew Gale for the Championship. A deal was struck and, one thrilling finish later, the title was theirs. Then, Middlesex were drinking to Franklin. Today, he was carrying the drinks.

It cannot have been an easy decision, for Franklin or the club. Granted, his numbers have not been great – 12 wickets in nine innings; 296 runs at an average of 22.09, with 112 coming in one knock – but Franklin is the type of character to want to drag Middlesex out of this mess. But with Murtagh returning from Ireland duty, Roland-Jones available and James Harris impressing, along with Dawid Malan returning to strengthen the batting stocks, there was only one decision to make it.

He kept a low profile throughout, even choosing to train in the indoor centre during the tea break when the nets out in the open on the Nursery Ground were free. Such a powerful move leaves him in an agonisingly powerless position for the next three days.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo, the Guardian, All Out Cricket and Yahoo Sport

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