CHAMPIONSHIP VICTORY IS A DISTANT MEMORY
RELEGATION IS A REAL CONCERN FOR TITLE HOLDERS
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.
Middlesex captain James Franklin with the County Championship trophy in September