Struggling Middlesex look to youth

Cricket Commentary
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The season may be embryonic rather than in its infancy, but one theme has already emerged. While Warwickshire have emerged at the stately gallop you would expect of multiple title winners, Middlesex, the side who pushed them to the final game in last year's Championship, the most successful county club in the modern era, are playing like novices.

True, they are in the driving seat against Durham, who need to bat all day today at Lord's to survive or to score 374 actually to win, but it is only Durham. This is Middlesex's seventh competitive game of the season and already they have suffered five defeats - all four of their Benson and Hedges Cup group matches and their opening Britannic Assurance County Championship. As that was a heavy one, and at Lord's against Gloucestershire, whose contribution to the rich traditions of the game's headquarters has generally been to turn up there, surrender and go home again, it was particularly galling.

Half of the 50 post-war Championships have been won by just three counties - Surrey, Yorkshire and Middlesex, and the fear lurking at Lord's is of the sort of long-term decline which afflicted the other two after their years of dominance.

That Mike Gatting would lead a challenge for an eighth title in 20 years was taken for granted. It still might materialise. After all, Middlesex were able to watch 85 minutes of Everton's triumph in last year's FA Cup final after being handed an almighty walloping by Lancashire, who had bowled them out for 88 and 112 to send them to their second big defeat in four games (the other was a 205-run hiding by Warwickshire).

It was only from mid-June when, Mark Ramprakash started scoring in floods with nine centuries and the dry summer produced the pitches for John Emburey and Phil Tufnell to expose English batting's inability to deal with spin bowling, that they mounted their spectacular charge.

Middlesex's start to the summer has been interesting, to say the least. The move of John Emburey to his coaching role at Northamptonshire is Gatting's biggest, most obvious problem. Lord's has been a suffocating place for visiting batsmen for more than 20 years, largely because of Emburey's presence. This is the first season since 1975 that batsmen can arrive without having to fear a pair of top-flight spinners (Emburey and Edmonds or Emburey and Tufnell) waiting to strangle them into submission. Last year, for example, Emburey and Tufnell took 142 wickets Championship wickets between them at just 22.12.

Tufnell now has to be the leading player in a new partnership with Paul Weekes, who is also trying to forge a career as an opening batsman. There are plenty of others. Angus Fraser at last looks fully fit for a season. But who will support him? Richard Johnson is a bowler of huge potential, but of just as huge doubts - his enforced winter off does not seem to have restored full fitness. Last year he played in just nine Championship games. And Dion Nash has returned from New Zealand's tour to the West Indies with a back injury.

In short, Middlesex's bowling will not be causing too many opponents to have sleepless nights. Neither, at the moment, will the batting. Gatting's 286-ball 171 in the current game is the first innings of real authority this season. More typical was the midweek Benson and Hedges game against Glamorgan, when every one of the top six got themselves in, but Jason Pooley's 50 was the top score and Middlesex underachieved.

The doubt about Middlesex's batting line-up is that it looks over-dependent on Gatting and Ramprakash, who has yet to get going this summer.The reality is that if they do not make big runs, Middlesex probably will not. John Carr had a wonderful 1994, but a moderate 1995, Weekes and Pooley formed a useful opening partnership last year but are still learning, and Keith Brown is solid but hardly the classiest act in the game.

So it could be a season of struggle for Middlesex. But then, that's what people said about Manchester United back in August. And there are similarities. After the losses of Desmond Haynes, Mike Roseberry and Emburey, Middlesex are being forced to look to their youth - and a pleasing vision it promises to be with some real talent waiting for a chance. Ricky Fay, playing in only his second first-class game, took three wickets in four balls at the top of Durham's innings. David Nash, the England under-19 wicketkeeper is a wonderful prospect, as is the student all- rounder Umer Rashid. Perhaps the brightest of all their talents, though, is the 17-year-old schoolboy, Owais Shah. The problem is that this might be a season or two too soon for them all, but as the football world has just found out, that's a dangerous thing to say.