Lancashire 165 (Murtagh 4-49) and 46 for 1 need a further 175 runs to beat Middlesex 233 and 152 (Robson 58, Bailey 5-44)
There is something oddly beautiful about a relegation scrap, even here, with only Middlesex in danger. Lancashire, safe, dismayed the race to the top was settled so soon, with a million excuses to have mentally checked out of the 2017 season, are playing their part in a back-and-forth tussle that started with brass knuckles and will be settled by brass balls. That this match, on an unpredictable pitch which has created more errors than excellence, is being played at Lord’s is a quirky filter that provides a wonderfully distorted picture.
Oh, the wonders this ground has seen. You only need to go back to the end of last summer when the 2016 season was brought to such a thrilling conclusion for Middlesex’s title win. There were tears in the Pavilion, champagne on the outfield and, after 23 years, a trophy in the cabinet.
A year on, barring a handful of interruptions for bad light, the sun shone brightly and the members ensured the best seats in the house didn’t go to waste for the last match of the season. And while the fizz still flowed, the cricket on show was gritty rather than golden. It had to be.
No batsman has come in and looked comfortable. Sam Robson was the most at ease with a battling half-century brought up off 96 balls in a Middlesex’s second innings in which his 56 was top score, one of three in double figures, was the top scorer.
Luckily for Middlesex, they went into the second innings with the benefit of a 68-run lead, having taken the final five Lancashire first innings wickets for just 52 runs. To do so with a bowler light – Toby Roland-Jones, unable to take to the field with a stiff back, will play no more part in this match after an inconclusive back scan today – spoke volumes of the dirty work that needs to be done.
Middlesex fans would rather it did not have to be this way, but they should be proud that their side have rediscovered the grimy qualities that sometimes four-day cricket requires. Traditionalists might see the defending Champions embroiled in a dog fight at Lord’s to stay in the division as unbecoming. And sure: you wouldn’t fork out £1,615-a-night for the Piccadilly Suite at the Ritz only to raid the discount aisle at Tesco for your dinner.
But needs must and Middlesex discarded whatever baggage that might have been holding them back this summer – selfish goals, England ambitions and whatever else – to fight together as they did last summer.
After 15 wickets fell on day one, 15 more fell to leave Lancashire a target of 221. By stumps, they had made it to 46 for the loss of Alex Davies. They need 175 tomorrow but rather less than Middlesex need those nine wickets.
The day’s end came just as the hosts were starting to lose focus. Tim Murtagh, excellent in the morning to remove a dangerous-looking Steven Croft and Jordan Clark (his third and fourth of the innings), lost his usually unerring accuracy to give Haseeb Hameed the four boundaries that currently make up his unbeaten 22.
Whatever bruises Lancashire took in the morning in being dismissed for 165 were avenged by Tom Bailey, who collected his second five-wicket haul of the match. His match figures of 10 for 98 are a new career best. He profited most from bounce: pushing Nick Compton back before finding his edge with a fuller delivery and then pinning Stevie Eskinazi on the hand in a set-up that finished with knocking over the right-hander’s off stump. His third kept Lancashire in the match when Robson felt compelled to hook out to deep square leg, where Kyle Jarvis leapt superbly to his right to take one of the catches of the season. The same combination of bowler, fielder and athleticism did for John Simpson, this time at cover, allowing Bailey to claim his maiden ten-for in a match when he trapped Ollie Rayner in front for five.
Neither Rayner, nor Roland-Jones, who was able to bat but walked like a man who had forgot to take the hanger out of his shirt, were able to recreate their opening-day blitz of 102 in 20.5 overs.
Lancashire will entertain a similar approach when they arrive for the third day. Liam Livingstone is timing the ball nicely. Never mind that a match winning turn on this pitch could grant him a seat on that plane to Australia next month – tomorrow brings a battle and Livingstone is not one to retreat.
Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo, the Guardian, All Out Cricket and Yahoo Sport