CHAM­PI­ONSHIP VIC­TORY IS A DIS­TANT MEM­ORY

REL­E­GA­TION IS A REAL CON­CERN FOR TI­TLE HOLD­ERS

Harefield Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - Jon Batham by tms-sport@trin­i­tymir­ror.com Twit­ter: @el­lis_red

MID­DLE­SEX’S eight-wicket loss to Lan­cashire at South­port on Mon­day was their first in the Spec­savers County Cham­pi­onship for 21 matches.

Nev­er­the­less, for the reign­ing cham­pi­ons the sound of Cham­pagne corks last Septem­ber is in dan­ger of be­ing re­placed by more omi­nous rum­bling.

Som­er­set’s late col­lapse against York­shire saved An­gus Fraser’s side the ig­nominy of drop­ping into the bot­tom two of Divi­sion One.

Even so, their ti­tle de­fence looks thread­bare and if you lis­ten care­fully the fa­mous five-minute bell at Lord’s is car­ry­ing an alarm­ing tone.

There is prece­dent for champi- ons to fol­low up the feat with rel­e­ga­tion with both this week’s con­querors, Lan­cashire, and Durham hav­ing fallen foul of the fate in re­cent sea­sons.

What needs ad­dress­ing to pre­vent Old Fa­ther Time be­com­ing more Grim Reaper than pa­ter­nal over­seer of the ten­ants of Lord’s?

The bowl­ing at­tack must re­cover its spark

Mid­dle­sex’s fast bowl­ing bat­tery, ably sup­ported by the spin of Ol­lie Rayner, were a feared unit dur­ing last year’s tri­umph but this year they have lacked teeth.

Neigh­bours Sur­rey are the only op­po­nents to have been bowled out twice while the low­est score achieved against them in the first in­nings is Es­sex’s 295 at Lord’s in April. Mid­dle­sex have con­ceded 400 or more twice and it’s hard to win games from there.

While it may be tempt­ing to high­light bat­ting col­lapses in de­feat at South­port – the vis­i­tors were out for 180 and 236 in a match they lost by eight wick­ets – that wasn’t the rea­son for the loss of in­vin­ci­bil­ity.

Lan­cashire’s last four firstin­nings wick­ets were al­lowed to add 173, far too many in a low scor­ing con­test on a club wicket.

It is a re­cur­ring theme. Base­ment side Som­er­set re­cov­ered from 80-5 to post 443-9 in the last match and Sur­rey es­caped from their hosts’ clutches when their tail wagged at Lord’s last month.

Of the bowlers, last sea­son’s ti­tle-clinch­ing hat-trick hero Toby Roland-Jones has shoul­dered a heavy bur­den this term, toil­ing amid in­ter­na­tional call-ups for Steven Finn and Tim Murtagh.

In the last two games he has, per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, looked flat. Mid­dle­sex are dili­gent in mon­i­tor­ing bowl­ing work­load yet it begs the ques­tion should Roland-Jones have con­tin­ued turn­ing out in the Royal Lon­don Cup af­ter hopes of qual­i­fi­ca­tion had passed?

The ques­tion must also be posed – have Mid­dle­sex be­come in­hib­ited by the man­tle of cham­pi­ons? The ev­i­dence sug­gests so.

A team who chased down 300plus in 46 overs for a cru­cial win against Som­er­set last year re­fused a tar­get of 242 in 39 against Sur­rey af­ter opt­ing not to en­force the fol­low-on against Es­sex, now lead­ers, in April when the bad weather fore­cast turned up to thwart them.

Clear sight of vic­tory doesn’t come along of­ten in Divi­sion One, and in a com­pet­i­tive divi­sion win­ners are brave – and ruth­less.

Dan Mul­lan/Getty Im­ages

Mid­dle­sex cap­tain James Franklin with the County Cham­pi­onship tro­phy in Septem­ber

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