Jack Leach discipline, Tom Abell dash keep Somerset in the hunt
Middlesex lose 7 for 30 from position of dominance to leave game finely poised
Somerset 172 and 112 for 3 (Abell 62* need 173 more runs to beat Middlesex 313 and 143 (Eskinazi 53
A spirited fightback with the ball and the intervention of bad light in mid-afternoon left the opening game of Somerset’s County Championship season finely poised, with Middlesex seven final-day wickets away from victory but wondering how they have managed to let such a strong position slip.
The protagonists of the revival were Jack Leach and Josh Davey, who set a dramatic collapse in motion with three wickets each, but Tom Abell could yet propel himself into the lead role if he can build on his overnight score of 62. Middlesex are still favourites, not least with the prospect of another probing new-ball burst from Tim Murtagh and Ethan Bamber in tandem as the climax approaches on Sunday afternoon, but that status is significantly more precarious than it was an hour into the third day.
If Somerset manage to pull the chase off, they will have Leach to thank for keeping them in the game. Bowling spin in England in the second week of April is a hazardous occupation, and Leach regularly found himself blowing hot air into his hands to avoid numbness from the chill that swept across St John’s Wood. But by conceding fewer than two runs an over in both innings, he has allowed Somerset to rotate their seamers from the other end and to maintain a sense of control throughout their time in the field.
Leach’s method was characteristically unremarkable. He has bowled at a slightly faster pace than usual, with a defensive line and field, and has rarely looked to spin the ball, instead relying on natural variation to induce errors. While Middlesex’s batsmen didn’t look to attack him, match figures of 4 for 61 from 33.4 overs will provide England with some optimism about Leach’s ability to perform the holding role that is so often required in home conditions – and his plucky defensive contribution to a last-wicket stand of 83 with Marchant de Lange on the second afternoon may yet prove vital to the outcome.
Middlesex were 113 for 3 and driving towards a substantial lead when Leach came into the attack, but were caught sleeping at the wheel as they gave up their final seven wickets for just 30 runs, all in relatively innocuous fashion. Leach set things in motion, inducing a prod forward from Robbie White which ended up in the hands of first slip, and when Stevie Eskinazi – who had completed a gritty half-century in the gloom – fell to a superb diving catch from Craig Overton at second slip off Davey, the collapse was underway.
Davey struck twice in four balls, pinning John Simpson and Toby Roland-Jones lbw, while Leach’s disciplined spell was rewarded when he trapped Martin Andersson in front with an arm ball. Lewis Gregory had Tom Helm caught behind, his solitary second-innings wicket following a five-for in the first, and Bamber had ideas above his station when attempting a slog-sweep off Leach only to be pinned leg-before. The meek slide earned Middlesex a ticking-off from their coach Stuart Law, who “told them up there that it wasn’t acceptable” after they “had them by the throat”, but owed as much to the quality of bowling as anything else.
That left Somerset needing 285, and when Tom Lammonby poked his first ball from Bamber to slip, it looked an insurmountable task. There are few tougher tests for a top-order batsman than opening the batting against Murtagh at Lord’s under floodlights and full cloud cover, and Abell and Tom Banton both rode their luck early on. They played and missed repeatedly outside the off stump, but they escaped unscathed, and were able to up the tempo against Middlesex’s change bowlers.
Banton may reflect that his innings of 37 was a missed opportunity to press on, but in the context of his recent struggles, it was a significant score. His winter was meant to include a breakthrough at the IPL, another eye-catching Big Bash season, and a starring role at the PSL to further his T20 World Cup credentials; in fact, he played twice each for Kolkata Knight Riders and Quetta Gladiators, withdrew from his BBL stint citing bubble fatigue, opted out of the IPL auction and ended his time in Pakistan in self-isolation following a positive Covid test. He was not at his fluent best here, and remains something of an unknown quantity in red-ball cricket, but a couple of crisply-struck boundaries served a reminder of his ability to time the ball.
It was Abell whose contribution was most significant. After struggling initially against the new ball, he scored at nearly a run a ball from that point, with a crashed cut off Helm the pick of his shots. Having himself received two chances during his first-innings 165, Sam Robson put down two catches at second slip, but neither would prove costly. Banton and James Hildreth were both aggrieved to have been given out lbw to Roland-Jones, but his two breakthroughs pegged Somerset back just as their target had started to look attainable.
And so the final day promises much, with Somerset’s batting depth giving their supporters reason to believe but Middlesex’s knowing their side are seven good balls away from an upset against the bookies’ favourites for Group Two. That the conclusion will unfold against the backdrop of 30,000 empty white seats rather than an eager Sunday crowd does this match a grave injustice.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98