Cricket: Middlesex show some true grit

Yorkshire 160 & 72-3 Middlesex 249: County Championship: Captain leads from the front while Essex stumble at The Oval
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AFTER LAST year's disasters, there is a surprising bounciness about Middlesex's early-season cricket. The prospect of starting next season in the Second Division of the PPP Championship seems too far away yet to be a serious concern, even though an improvement of eight places is required to avert such a fate.

What's more, Mark Rampra-kash's side came into this match on the back of a rare win, by 81 runs over Gloucestershire, their first in 16 first- class games. Such a sequence would have been unimaginable not half a dozen years ago, yet now paints an accurate picture of decline.

Had Angus Fraser followed his inclination to move on at the end of last season, so soon after Mike Gatting retired, morale could have sunk to new depths. Tempted by rival offers, Fraser stayed on, Gatting was confirmed as coach and Mike Roseberry, a key figure in the Champ- ionship title of 1993, returned from his personal nightmare in Durham. A feeling has emerged that improvement is on the way.

Middlesex may beat a weakened Yorkshire. Yesterday, working hard on a pitch that was not straightforward, they gained a first-innings lead of 89 and, despite losing strike bowler Richard Johnson to a groin injury, claimed three Yorkshire wickets in 40 overs, with the arrears not yet wiped off.

After Jamie Hewitt uprooted Michael Vaughan's middle stump and induced an edge from David Byas, Phil Tufnell removed Matthew Wood with the last ball of the day. From Yorkshire's point of view, heavy responsibility rests on Australia's Greg Blewett, unbeaten on 41.

The vagaries of the surface - pacy but with unpredictable bounce - had shown themselves on the first day, when 13 wickets fell. Yorkshire might not have made three figures but for Byas's determined 62. Thus Middlesex, despite resuming at 124 for 3, could not feel entirely confident, especially if Ramprakash became an early casualty.

The England batsman, who had played almost faultlessly on Friday evening for 67, continued in similar vein, extending his fourth-wicket stand with Owais Shah to 93. Even with Darren Gough, Gavin Hamilton and the injured Paul Hutchison missing, Yorkshire's attack was still potent and Matthew Hoggard finally broke the resistance, having Shah caught behind in his first over of the day.

When the 22-year-old then dismissed Ramprakash, brilliantly caught by wicket-keeper Richard Blakey leaping to gather a gloved pull, Yorkshire must have thought they had done the difficult bit, with Midd-lesex only 10 runs in front.

Hoggard finished with 4 for 56 while Ian Fisher, a 23-year-old left-armer playing only his third first-class match, showed that the Yorkshire Academy can turn out a spinner, too. But Yorkshire did not anticipate the stout late-order resistance offered by wicket-keeper David Nash, whose unbeaten 31 occupied 30 overs, or certainly by Phil Tufnell, whose unorthodox style brought him an unlikely trio of boundaries against the new ball.