Middlesex 214 (Harris 46*, Hutton 5-54, Sanderson 4-42) and 159 (Holden 33, Murtagh 31, Bracewell 3-31, Procter 3-38) beat Northants 71 (Murtagh 4-27, Harris 5-9) and 142 (Murtagh 4-36, Harris 4-29) by 160 runs
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At the end of the 2017 season, among crossbow-gate and threats and counter-threats of legal action, Middlesex shrugged their shoulders, magnanimously accepted relegation and vowed to return to Division One of the County Championship at the first attempt. A 160-run victory over a Northamptonshire side who challenged for promotion until the final day of last season laid down a marker for their immediate return.
Middlesex were clever and clinical in conditions where Northants should have been competitive and it took only 38 deliveries after lunch on the third day to take the five remaining wickets for victory.
This was a Middlesex team missing Steven Finn and Tom Barber, the latter a left-armer clocked quicker than any at the National Performance Centre in Loughborough, and a host of batsman – Dawid Malan, Eoin Morgan, Nick Gubbins and Stevie Eskinazi, last season’s top runscorer in the Championship, all injured and Nick Compton not considered for selection. Added together, it is bizarre that Middlesex were even relegated last season but they took no time in proving they are too good for Division Two.
Their bowling injuries actually worked out perfectly as Tim Murtagh and James Harris, neither of alarming pace but skiddy and skilful, shared 17 wickets in the match. Murtagh should make his Test debut next month for Ireland against Pakistan – has anyone done so with more than 700 first-class wickets behind them? Harris’ attempts to add pace to achieve England recognition failed but here provided a reminder of why he was so sought-after six years ago.
Murtagh began the hosts’ push for victory, getting the fifth ball of the day to bounce on Ben Duckett and take a glove to short leg. Duckett was not expected to play after finger surgery but he might have wished to still be in rehab after a second single-figure score in the match.
Northants did settle through Rob Newton and Alex Wakely, who compiled stand of 51 for the fourth wicket, and at 95 for 3 were still very much in contention chasing 303. But Newton – having been dropped at gully trying to drive Tom Helm – went to force Toby Roland-Jones off the back foot and edged behind.
Newton perhaps encapsulates the nearly-nature of Northants’ red-ball cricket. He passed fifty 11 times last season in the Championship but made only one century. Here, the new ball had been seen off as he reached 44 but he failed to make the major contribution Northants needed to be competitive. It was a familiar tale for Northants – “good but not right” as Roy Walker used to say – whose batting collapses last season and the failure to grind out batting bonus points was the chief reason for their failure win promotion.
Any chance of them producing a close finish here – with the pitch making it perilously difficult for batsman to get set – rested with Newton and Wakely. And when Wakely was pinned on the toe in Hilton Cartwright’s first over for his new club – an afterthought signing for Middlesex only after their injury list had swelled – the game was up and Northants crumbled before the scones could be put in the oven for tea.
With a bowling attack to rival most in the country, Northants should challenge again but they were not as persistent as Middlesex here, with the fuller length of Murtagh and Harris trumping the good-looking but less effective back of a length the visiting attack erred towards. Short of a gallop they may have been – Middlesex enjoyed better preparation with their marquee at Marchant Taylor’s School – Northants were edged in all facets of this game and a chance to run the title favourites close was squandered. The Middlesex juggernaut flattened the first obstacle.