Gatting still a glutton in his salad days

County focus
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WHEN four-day cricket became the Championship norm in 1993, Middlesex were always likely to be among the grateful beneficiaries. Indeed they won that inaugural four-day title, which was then followed by fourth place last year. The extra playing time suits their attritional style of cricket, based primarily around the spin of John Emburey and Phil Tufnell, two spinners whose substantial quota of overs has risen ever higher in the recent hot sunny weather.

"We are a much better side on dry pitches," reckoned John Emburey, relaxing at a seven-a-side testimonial event held for him in Bury St Edmunds last week. "Not only does it suit myself and Tuffers better, but our batsmen tend to play spin well. It's helped that when we've won the toss we've posted big scores. But after a slow start to the season, we've got confidence as a side now, and we go into games expecting to win."

Unusually, for a summer of so many early finishes on green pitches, Middlesex have won their last four games by amassing huge first-innings totals with a gluttony that has appeared only to afflict the opposition at Lord's this summer, when confronted by Nancy Doyle's legendary lunches, before twice bowling the opposition out cheaply.

Since being dropped by England Mark Ramprakash has been in scintillating form with five centuries, a figure matched by the left-handed opener Jason Pooley. Mike Gatting may have taken to eating salads these days, but three centuries in as many matches, in the middle order, suggests that not only has his appetite for runs remained untainted by modern nutritional mores, but that his early-season stint as an opener was an experiment whose file has since passed through the shredder.

Gatting, along with Kim Barnett of Derbyshire, is the longest-serving county captain now playing. His influence, all guts and gumption, along with that of John Emburey and the coach Don Bennett, has ensured a continuity of approach most counties cannot match.

Regular success has helped re-inforce the effect and more than one opponent has admitted that their "imposing personalities" often make playing at Lord's a nerve-racking experience. Middlesex might claim the opposite, believing that opponents, rather than being cowed, are inspired by the famous old ground. Certainly, before four-day cricket took hold, the home bowlers were forever moaning about the lack of result pitches at HQ, a situation they blamed on MCC, under whose jurisdiction the pitch was prepared.

Ironically, four-day cricket has changed that and Middlesex actually benefit from playing at Lord's, where the heavy cricket traffic means they play on used pitches far more likely to turn as the season wears on. It is a point mildly contested by Emburey, who believes it has been good all-round team performances that have created winning positions. "Everyone has contributed," Emburey said. "The players have been very supportive of each other and the form of individuals has dovetailed nicely. Dion Nash started well but then tailed off a bit with the ball, though he's getting his nip back now. Both Richard Johnson and Tuffers are bowling well and Gus [Fraser] is just steady old Gus."

Having lost both last season's opening batsmen, Mike Roseberry and Desmond Haynes, Middlesex could well have embarked on a season of rebuilding. Instead, after a period of flux, the team has settled into an organised unit, with players able to come in when injury and Test calls compromise the strongest line-up.

With six matches to go and only one of them at Lord's (the other two home games are at Uxbridge), Middlesex must win away from home. Gatting said: "We're fortunate that it's the only thing we need to concentrate on at this stage of the season. We've also played all the leading teams except Northamptonshire, though Yorkshire at Headingley will be a tough one especially with Gus missing on England duty. If we win two of our last three games, we've a great chance of another Championship."