Johnson stifles brave reply

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The Independent Online

The target was improbable: 391 in 83 overs. Middlesex's declaration was not generous, but the match against North-amptonshire was being played on pitch number 15 at Lord's, which lies close to the Tavern boundary, and on the fourth morning it was still playing remarkably well.

But wait. With half the overs bowled in Northamptonshire's second innings, Matthew Hayden, their Australian captain, was already in the 90s; the sound of the ball on his bat was sweet, and he was riding the required bit of luck. Although there were still 239 to get, a result did not look quite so improbable after all.

The 42nd over of Northamptonshire's second innings was bowled by Richard Johnson, one of Middlesex's talented young under-achievers. Off the second ball, Hayden hit the 14th four of his innings. Trying to repeat the exercise off the next delivery, he was beaten, perhaps by the pace, because he lost his leg stump. He had scored 93 in only 123 balls.

Hayden had taken advantage of the short boundary, of course, but he had square-cut to the long boundary under the Grandstand, tickled through leg slip and, occasionally, got an edge through second slip. In the end promise was not fulfilled, however, but that was because, to Hayden, only the highest standards apply.

Johnson's very next ball reared up and caught Malachy Loye on the left elbow. The bruising was severe enough to cause Loye to retire hurt. Soon after, Johnson changed ends, and when Phil Tufnell replaced him, he had David Sales lbw.

The scoreboard showed the visitors on 164 for 2, but their slim chance had gone. When Hayden's wicket fell, they had 239 to get at 5.6 runs an over. When Sales was out, the run-rate was 6.25 and rising.

Now that only Middlesex had a chance of 12 points for the win, Adrian Rollins and Russell Warren hunkered down and steered the game towards stalemate. The last matter of any interest was whether Rollins would score his second century of the match. His 100 in the first innings suggested that Rollins, part of the diaspora of Derbyshire players last winter, is a valuable acquisition.

On 96, going for the boundary that would give him fond memories of Lord's, he managed only to give an easy catch to mid-on. As he trudged off, the players followed him. It was an anti-climax, though none of the participants would have been surprised by it. The rate demanded of Northamptonshire was always high because Middlesex scored quickly on a fine, warm morning. Justin Langer, recently arrived from the Australian summer, scored 32 effortless runs in a stand of 65 off 50 balls in 35 minutes to set up a declaration at 11.45am.

Langer's partner was And-rew Strauss, who broke into the first team late last summer, when he averaged 33.64 with a highest score of 98. Strauss is left-handed, not especially ele-gant, but a hard hitter who finds the open spaces. A hoik to mid-wicket brought the three runs he needed to get to his maiden first-class hundred. As he ran the third, his stride was broken by a leap, and he shook his bat at the home balcony.

Mike Gatting says Strauss is an example of Middlesex's new culture of hard work. When you ask Gatting how he will manage the Middlesex revival, he tells you politely that you have asked the wrong question: "What are the players going to do? That is the question."

Young players like Strauss, Owais Shah - who made 76 in the first innings - David Nash and Ben Hutton have been working hard during the winter. An absence of competition for places had made them lazy, says Gatting. "They know now what it's like to lose, and it's not nice." He has coached the batters while Gus Fraser, during a rare winter at home, took the bowlers under his wing.

This performance may be evidence of a cultural revolution. But beware: it is Gatting who reminds you that, though the last two seasons were disastrous, they began well too.