The England captain, Andrew Strauss – dismissed second ball in his first innings of the domestic season on Friday – failed for a second time last night, in the face of another testing examination by the ambitious Graham Onions.
Strauss lasted 25 balls this time, before he again had his stumps displaced and was dismissed for 6. He had already been dropped at gully facing the same bowler before he had scored a run and he had no answer when Onions produced a delivery similar to that which had brought him success in the first innings, swinging in and then nipping back off the pitch to the left-hander, who brushed it on to his stumps with an inside edge.
Strauss, without a Test century since November 2010 and unconvincing in England's winter series against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, had to face the in-form Durham paceman again after Middlesex bowled out the visitors for 238.
It was another triumph for Onions, for whom the sub-plot to his attempt to impress Strauss – in which he must surely have succeeded – is his rivalry with the Middlesex bowler, Steve Finn, who is probably as vulnerable as anyone among the contracted England bowlers to early-season Championship deeds among the contenders. Onions has not played a Test match since January 2010, since which time he has undergone surgery to correct a career-threatening back injury. Having taken 50 first-class wickets last season, he went to Dubai during the winter as cover when Chris Tremlett was injured, which by his reckoning puts him in the top six seamers in the thoughts of the selectors.
His form here seemed to invite a response from Finn and there was a sense that the 23-year-old was trying to come up with one as he steamed in with intent from the pavilion end. Maybe he was trying a little too hard. Three of his first four deliveries went to the boundary as he over-pitched or else bowled too short too many times in his opening spell, and the wicketkeeper John Simpson had to field a few wayward deliveries down the leg side for good measure. Finn would have been asked to take a breather sooner had he not suddenly produced a gem to send Michael Di Venuto's off-stump flying, in his eighth over.
His second spell was better, in that his line and length were more consistent and more testing, but while he picked up two more important wickets to decent deliveries – the first edged by the dangerous Ben Stokes to Strauss at first slip, the second trapping Ian Blackwell plumb – he never looked nearly as threatening as Onions.
This has, of course, been a profitable ground for the Durham man. He took his first five-wicket haul in county cricket here and marked his Test debut with 5 for 39 against West Indies in 2009. Clearly he would relish the opportunity to reprise those figures against the same opponents next month, although it is still more likely to be an injury, perhaps to the seemingly fragile Stuart Broad, rather than a preference that lets him in.
Onions accepts that he can do no more than perform at his best on the field and to that end he seems to have been quietly working on his batting too, should anyone raise concerns in that direction. Last night, he combined with Scott Borthwick in another wag of the tail to add 44, enabling Durham to take a 50-run lead.