When the Middlesex season drew to a close with yet another dramatic Championship victory, this time to spoil the Paul Collingwood leaving party at Durham, there remained a feeling of what might have been.
The players, coaches and supporters would have all been thinking that and the end of term report will have concluded that despite some incredible victories in matches that they really had no right to even come close to winning, overall they really should have done better.
This is a team and a squad littered with international players, those talked about as being international players and some very promising youngsters but, both individually and collectively, they really have not gelled. As a result, they have significantly underperformed as a team. They will all know, deep down, that they really should be challenging for promotion and honours, rather than simply being also-rans, which has certainly been the case for the past two seasons.
A shake up is certainly required to lift them out of this apparent malaise and, for all the good work of coach Richard Johnson, a new fresh approach to reinvigorate the players is probably just what they need. Stuart Law, with all his county playing experience and international coaching credentials seems to fit the bill perfectly. Well done Angus Fraser on making the appointment.
Why should this apparent lethargy be ? After all, largely the same group of players were instrumental in Middlesex winning Division One of the County Championship only two years ago. From the outside there is a feeling, rightly or wrongly, that the players are operating within their comfort zone and are not being sufficiently tested or challenged. Furthermore, because of their 2016 success and their exceedingly unfortunate relegation in 2017, there may have been a feeling, whether subconsciously or not, that they were too good for this lower Division and that promotion back to the top Division would have been a formality. However, as we all know, cricket does not work like that.
Cricket can rest on very small percentages and if a side does not have its 100% game face on right from the start of a match then it can become a real struggle. This would seem to be evident from Middlesex’s first innings performances, especially with the bat. 14 batting bonus points from 14 matches is worse than bad, it is simply terrible.
It is easy to blame damp bowler friendly pitches in April and May, as well as in September, but it is the same for everyone. It is also easy to say that teams might up their games when coming to play at the Home of Cricket but this is a hollow excuse too. Quite simply a lack of application and determination in the early stages of matches has proved costly and has ultimately sealed Middlesex’s fate as promotion contenders. Stuart is going to have to lay down the law next season and get the team performing right from the start of matches.
There is no doubting the team’s resilience and determination in fighting back from positions of deficit and the victories later in the season over Northants and Durham particularly have been quite extraordinary, unbelievable and miraculous in many ways. They clearly have it in them. However, a team cannot expect to challenge and gain promotion when playing catch up in almost every match.
There are clearly matters to be addressed. Their overall form has been no better than mediocre. None of the big names, from whom much was expected, have performed remotely to their ability with the bat in the County Championship. This group includes seasoned performers such as Dawid Malan, Eoin Morgan, Sam Robson, Nick Gubbins and Stevie Eskinazi. Only new boy Max Holden has provided any real light and he does look to be a very good prospect.
Performances have been far better in the field and, despite the loss to injury for much of the season to Toby Roland-Jones, Steven Finn, Tom Barher and Tom Helm, the old warhorse Tim Murtagh continues to inspire. He seems to perform to an extraordinarily high level season after season and, yet again, he finished at the top of the bowling averages. He was very well supported by a resurgent James Harris with a decent contribution too from a fit again James Fuller. The club have also unearthed another fine talent in Ethan Bamber, a tall right arm pace bowler, not dissimilar to Roland-Jones, who showed very well towards the end of the season. Much will be expected of him next season.
The less said the better about Middlesex’s performance in the Vitality Blast Twenty 20 and Royal London One Day Cup. It is all very well making a few big money marquee signings but if they just swan about and only play in a few matches to swell the crowd numbers and are all a little bit half hearted in their performances, they are little good to anyone. Ashton Agar must be excused from such criticism albeit it would have been helpful to his adopted county if he had been available for a few more games.
Only Paul Stirling scored big runs and he was quite phenomenal at times. However, once he was out, Middlesex invariably crumbled. Only Eoin Morgan, James Fuller and Steve Finn, when he played, could be said to have emerged with any sort of credit. This side of the county’s game needs seriously reviewing and addressing, with a properly thought out game plan and some consistency in selection. It will not be hard to improve on just 2 wins from 14 matches in the Twenty 20, which was all that they managed in this past season.
So, miraculous and mediocre very much sums up the past season and that is simply not good enough for a county of such history and distinction. The big players did not perform until it became desperate, whereupon they performed out of their skins. However, this is a performance model that is clearly not sustainable.
For 2019, Stuart Law has, on paper, a good set of players at his disposal. For the long suffering Middlesex supporters, it must be hoped that those players, plus the up and coming new boys, all with much to prove to a new coach, will hit their straps from the off. Miracles should not be needed, mediocrity should be avoided and maybe Middlesex will make amends for much malaise on move on up again. They simply must.