County Championship feature: Middlesex struggle in the sun at Leicestershire's evocative Grace Road
PUBLISHED: 19:19 22 June 2018 | UPDATED: 19:19 22 June 2018
The temperature nudged the mercury towards nearly 30c as the man sat down on a bench, sited between Grace Road's evocative pavilion and the sight screen.
‘Hot isn’t it?’ he said, more as confirmation than a question. Sweat had collected on his forehead and he looked flustered.
As he settled into the welcoming wooden bench, one of many in front of the Fox Bar at this welcoming ground on the outskirts of the city of Leicester, you could hear commentary from Brazil’s World Cup match against Costa Rica in farwaway St Petersburg.
‘Who needs football. They’re all cheats anyway,’ he continued, a stream of consciousness aimed at no-one in particular.
Two gentlemen with Leicestershire accents who sat contentedly on the next bench and within polite earshot, regarded him politely, before the one nearest him offered: ‘Do you think our lead is enough?’
The man from London replied gruffly but with passion. “Of course. It’s more than enough. Our batting line-up is weak.
“I mean, John Simpson’s been at No5 which is far too high for him while [Steven] Finn’s at No8 – which should tell you a lot”, before adding, more to himself at the incredulity of it all, ‘Eight I ask you’ before shaking his head vigorously as a few droplets of sweat flew off his forehead.
His pair of new acquaintances continued to look out on the dry outfield before the nearest one, nursing a plastic pint of beer turned and said: ‘Didn’t your man Finn hit a half century in Dunedin? You know, for England against New Zealand?’
Of course he was talking about Test cricket. Not any of the shorter forms of the game heaven forbid. Current or mooted.
The visitor arched his head, paused for effect, before offering the merest hint of a smile, as he added: ‘Look. I’ve seen Phil Tufnell hit a half century.’.
The trio dissolved in pleasant laughter as they eagerly dissected the last three days play between Leicestershire and Middlesex in the County Championship.
Friday, or day three, saw not a cloud in the increasingly sark blue sky.
The away team started the morning facing a considerable deficit, even if they had their hosts at the pleasing score of 0-1.
However, the real truth lay behind the facade – the fact they allowed, or failed to prevent, Leicestershire scoring a colossal 427 in their first innings, despite being reduced to 198-6 at one stage.
Middlesex subsided to a disappointing 233 all out the day before, despite a knock of 78 from a reassuring 128 balls from Dawid Malan – soon to embark on a month of 20 over cricket before disappearing back to England’s clutches for a five Test series against India, crammed into August and September.
Which brought us to Friday morning and the hosts 0-1.
Led by head coach, the combative Paul Nixon, Leicestershire, for so long becalmed in the lower reaches of Division Two, have staged a renaissance of sorts, winning their last two matches to be in with a fair shout of promotion if they can sustain their form.
Nixon, England’s former ODI wicketkeeper, gained international recognition late in his career, savouring every second, before time, as it always does, called a half to the enjoyment.
The Leicestershire stalwart would have been proud that a tour of this surprisingly endearing ground before the morning session started, confirmed that this is a cricket club with its roots in the heart of its community.
With its nets below the well-ordered press room employed by a number of keen youngsters – boys and girls – from a nearby school throughou the day, as well as its learning centre providing much-needed resources for schoolchildren, Leicestershire are reaching out to the community in a way that should be applauded.
‘Nash’ the steward on the gate, took pride in explaining the 5,000 capacity ground, would be near to capacity when the T20 starts next month, giving a much needed financial injection.
“Not for me”, he smiled, half-jokingly, adding, “I much prefer the longer form of the game. But it gets people through the gates which can only be a good thing.”
He was right of course.
Things were looking up on the field too, as Colin Ackerman, a 27-year-old talented South African showed evidence of a Grace Road revival when scoring an improbable 196 during his side’s first innings – to help move them to the promised land of four batting points, 50 per cent more than Middlesex earned.
If two points seems a mere trifle, consider the fact the Seaxes found themselves in the second tier of the championship after falling through the trapdoor by two points, through the slings, and mostly arrows, of fate.
Not to mention fine for a slow over rate fine of two points, after their match at the Oval last summer against London rivals, swaggering Surrey, was abandoned after an arrow, improbably fired onto the square, led to an abandonment, at a time when ‘The Middle’ were behind the required number of overs.
No matter, supremo Gus Fraser has been bullish this April, setting the team a goal of promotion, and a decent tilt at a white ball trophy.
And yet, a day after the summer solstice, this proud old club found themselves cast into the wilderness of mid-table mediocrity in Division Two, already out of the List A tournament, the Royal London Cup.
With the prospect of T20 to come – in a discipline where they have failed spectacularly since Tyrone Henderson’s annus mirablis back in 2008 led them to their last short form trophy – some may argue the season is effectively over already.
The man on the bench at Grace Road certainly did.
‘[Eoin] Morgan isn’t a Middlesex player, He never plays for us anymore’ he scoffed harshly to his new companions, warming to his theme on a hot day.
“[Nick] Gubbins is off with the England Lions [the talented Middlesex batsman was hitting a century at practically the same time 20 miles away in nearby Derby as the young tyros faced their India equivalents].
“Robson is horribly out of touch and Max Holden, while talented’, he conceded, ‘is inexperienced’.
The downbeat mood was reflected when the visitors made a poor start to their second innings, ostensibly chasing a victory target of 380, when in reality they needed to bat out five sessions to save the match.
Holden was removed for a duck by the fiery, former Durham player Ben Raine, after only three balls, to replicate the score at the start of the day, 0-1 – with the difference being the home side were in the box seat.
Earlier, Raine had showed his frustration at losing his wicket for a jaunty 36 off only 34 balls with the home side on 115-6 – 309 runs ahead at the time.
The commanding lead evidently didn’t stop Raine fury, as he let out a primal roar of frustration from the Grace Road changing rooms, that most of those who were watching Brazil score two late goals to beat Costa Rica heard in the next door Fox Bar.
Raine’s understandable outburst was prior to the popular former Middlesex man Neil Dexter run out for a doughty 38 after wicketkeeper Simpson showed quick hands – and thinking – to aim the cherry at the poles for an official stumping, with a sharp underarm throw after the South African had wandered out of his crease off the bowling Murtagh.
Despite Murtagh grabbing 3-27 to make it eight wickets in the match, and Harris also grabbing a trio, Leicestershire’s last wicket pair of Mohamed Abbas and Zak Chappell put on 30 to add to the cumulative frustration of the tiring bowlers, as the last two wickets put on 53.
There was worse to come as the Syndey-born Robson was trapped lbw by Gavin Griffiths for 31 with Middlesex 51-2 before England Test batsman Malan fell to the competitive Raine for 12 at 79-3 – only seven wickets removed from the prospect of a damaging defeat sometime on the fourth day.
Shortly afterwards an absorbing third day’s cricket ended with the visitors in a perilous position.
Only three further runs were added to the total as Middlesex ended on 82-3, a whopping 299 runs behind with only seven wickets remaining, and the impending likelihood of a heavy defeat at some stage on Saturday to come.
No wonder the sweating Middlesex follower sitting near the sightscreen was so grumpy all afternoon.
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