Middlesex prove a tougher match-up for Hampshire

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Five wickets in afternoon session peg back hosts, who had won by an innings at Leicestershire

Hampshire 281 for 8 (Holland 64, Northeast 63) vs Middlesex

If you’re only as good as your last result, then the gulf between Hampshire and Middlesex was looking pretty wide coming into his match. Hampshire won by an innings away to Leicestershire in the opening round, three players bringing up hundreds (including a James Vince double) on the way to 612 for 5 declared; Middlesex, meanwhile, squandered more than one winning position before ultimately surrendering to Somerset in a topsy-turvy encounter at Lord’s.

But the first day of this contest in Southampton produced an even tussle for ascendency between two teams blessed with several cricketers of international standard, including half a dozen who have worn whites for England. Middlesex’s depth of seam bowling kept them in the hunt after Hampshire had chosen to bat, with five wickets during the afternoon session helping to peg the hosts back after a steady start.

Never mind form, recent history was arguably even more in Hampshire’s favour. Two years ago, when Hampshire finished third in Division One of the Championship, Middlesex were left mugging along third from bottom in the second tier. Though Stuart Law has seen results with the London side improve since that summer, his first as head coach, a hard-fought contest at Radlett in last year’s Bob Willis Trophy went the way of Hampshire by three wickets.

For the second week running, Vince won the toss – but this time there was to be no run deluge on a greenish Ageas Bowl surface, with fifties from Ian Holland and Sam Northeast the acme of their investment from 98 overs of batting. Hampshire dug out solid foundations, 77 for 1 at lunch and 191 for 4 shortly before tea, but Middlesex’s four-pronged seam attack remained disciplined throughout and earned reward for their persistence.

The dismissal of Vince, coming in off the back of 231 at Grace Road, went some way to summing up both Hampshire’s position at the end of day one, and his own status in English batting folklore. Holland had just been chiselled out by Toby Roland-Jones after a dogged innings – his first fifty in 15 innings going back to 2019 – and Vince walked out with his side 128 for 3 and in need of an innings of substance. Instead, there nine balls of Vince doing Vincey things: a couple of breezy boundaries off Martin Andersson, either side of a cheeky play and miss, before he flirted with a short wide one and sent a top edge to slip.

Vince kicked the air, his frustration palpable. “I guess you’ve got to say it was a bit loose, really,” sighed Dave Allen, the Hampshire cricket historian, on the club’s livestream, in the manner of someone who has had to deliver similar verdicts rather more often than they would have liked. Northeast’s demise a little later on, feathering a cut to an innocuous Andersson delivery, belonged in the same category.

Middlesex were always likely to have provided a greater test for Hampshire’s batsmen than a callow Leicestershire bowling unit had managed last week; Roland-Jones was an England Test seamer of burgeoning repute before a succession of untimely injuries interrupted his progress, while Law was also able to bring in Steven Finn for his first first-class appearance since 2019. Tim Murtagh and Tom Helm made way, with Andersson stepping up as fourth seamer and Nathan Sowter’s legspin also favoured.

Finn made important breakthroughs and looked increasingly in rhythm after an expensive opening. He dismissed Hampshire’s two other Grace Road centurions in Tom Alsop, who top-edged a pull at his first ball after lunch, and Liam Dawson, caught at midwicket off a leg-stump half-volley. In between times there was a hostile spell that saw both Holland beaten and Northeast squared up, a sign that there remains gas in the tank for Finn at 32, half a lifetime on from his prodigious arrival on the scene for Middlesex.

There was also some Ethan Bamber-boozlement for Hampshire to contend with, the man nicknamed “Mini Murtagh” doing a passable impression of his senior colleague with his control and subtle movement. Opener Joe Weatherley probably does not often have to contend with the keeper standing up to the stumps inside the first hour, and he was sufficiently foxed to stumble out of his crease, allowing John Simpson’s fast hands to finish the job; Bamber then came back later in the day to strike with the second new ball.

Hampshire’s position could have been trickier had Max Holden not put down Holland on 9, off the bowling of Roland-Jones, and they were also grateful for Kyle Abbott lasting more than 100 balls while helping to add 60 useful runs for the eighth and ninth wickets during the final session. Abbott missed the 2020 summer due to the effects of the pandemic but any intel gathered on the nature of this Ageas Bowl surface may help tip the balance once again when Hampshire come to bowl.

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick

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