Emburey doles out fresh champagne moments: An old campaigner is inspiring Middlesex's charge for the County Championship. Rob Steen reports

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The Independent Online
WHEN John Emburey rose briefly to the England captaincy five years ago, he outlined his modus operandi with characteristic succinctness. 'You should play every game as if it's your last, but make sure you perform well enough to make sure it's not.' As Middlesex stand on the brink of their seventh Championship in 18 seasons, their debt to that philosophy is profound.

Maturing like a vintage port while retaining all the effervescence of a freshly-bottled champagne, Emburey has rebounded from an ill-starred tour of India to enjoy, at 41, the fizziest season of his career. With 680 runs at 68 (bettered only by a trio of Australians) and 64 wickets at 20.46 (third Englishman in the averages) he could yet wind up as the leading native in both charts, lending a whole new meaning to doing the 'double'. That Middlesex have won 10 of his 13 four-day outings - it would surely have been 11 had rain not drowned their tilt with Durham - is far from coincidental. Indeed, but for being dealt a similarly unfair hand at Scarborough, they would be out of sight already.

Emburey prefers to focus on the collective effort, albeit in a suitably perplexed tone. That he and Phil Tufnell have shared 123 victims is the only obvious explanation for that

58-point lead over Glamorgan. 'We lost nine tosses in a row, so you can't say it's luck. Our batting hasn't really fired, yet our top six have all made between 600 and 950 runs, so the contributions have been spread pretty evenly. The figures suggest the seamers haven't done much either, but whenever things haven't gone the spinners' way they've chipped in. It's been the perfect all-round bowling performance.'

Reflecting, grudgingly, on his own part in this, Emburey is no less swift to slap backs. 'John Carr is the country's leading catcher and has been phenomenal at short-leg and slip: he deserves those catches for all those blows he takes when Tuffers or I pitch short. Gatt and Mickey Roseberry have also been reliable close in; fielders like that bolster your confidence.'

The same, Emburey contends, applies to his much maligned accomplice behind the stumps, Keith Brown, oft derided as the poor man's Alec Stewart. 'For a long time Keith was stuck between being a batsman- keeper and a keeper-batsman but he got a few stumpings towards the end of 1992 to finish with three more than anyone else on the circuit, and that helped his confidence, as his runs have shown. Ironically, mind, I haven't had a stumping all summer.'

Back, though, to why Emburey's nomination as Britannic Assurance player of the year seems assured. Never a profound tweaker of the ball, variation, accuracy and, above all, plain nous, led to a fleeting England recall for the fifth Test at Edgbaston. Not that he proved it there. 'I didn't do myself justice, a bit slow perhaps. Tim May bowls wider of the crease than most off-spinners, just as I've done over the past couple of seasons, but being older means my arm is not as quick as his.'

The eye, though, remains alert. Despite an adherence to textbook protocol that barely extends past holding the blade the right way up, Emburey has dragged Middlesex out of many a hole, not to mention showing up a good few specialists at Birmingham to top both sides' Ashes averages with 92. He revels in the jibes. 'I do play up to them a bit. I try to be different, to be entertaining. I don't have to fall over when I sweep, or back away so far to hit balls over extra cover, but it gives people a laugh, so why not?' Do we detect a showman beneath that reticent exterior? 'A quiet one perhaps.'

That said, although he refuses to accept that his Test career is over, Emburey acknowledges that he will probably be signing on come winter ('The call is for youth'). Still recovering from the abortive business venture that ate up all those South African krugerrands, the bank balance is nowhere near as healthy as one might imagine. From jack of all trades to dole-queue king of Kilburn: the irony is almost cruel.