Thousands were inside Lord’s, basking in preposterous September heat; tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands more were sitting at computer screens watching updates click over or listening to breathless commentary; fourteen men stood in a field as a fifteenth ran in to bowl, seeking a third wicket in his last three deliveries. The flabby, outdated, soft County Championship had contrived the tightest, toughest, tinglingest finish anyone could have hoped for when it lumbered into life in the chill days of Spring. It was the most elegant of rebukes to the naysayers; the most unanswerable of cases to return to a 16 matches, all-play-all, two divisions format as soon as possible; the greatest of games at its greatest. From the straw-chewing shepherds who invented this most satisfying waste of a sunny day to its noble (the word is not misplaced when one reads the reactions of the vanquished when their fates became known) principals today, those of us on the outside of the boundary rope offer our gratitude.
Ball Two – Chris Rogers bows out gloriously, if not in glory
Somerset were the gooseberry at the Lord’s deathly embrace, a draw enough for the Taunton men to spend the next 12 months sipping cider from a Holy Grail that has eluded them through history. After James Hildreth had stood and delivered a century with a broken ankle and Chris Rogers had done what he does to deliver another, spin twins Jack Leach and Dom Bess rolled a desperate Nottinghamshire for 138 and the result was never in doubt. There was time for a second and, as it turned out, valedictory ton from skipper Rogers (a magnificent servant to the game in England and Australia), before Leach and Roelof van der Merwe spun out Notts again and 23 points were delivered, the one missing after Somerset’s extraordinary Day One collapse crucial in keeping Yorkshire in the race for the pennant, 200 miles to the east. Their work concluded with a day to spare, Somerset team gathered at their empty ground on Friday, to be joined by fans, to share the hopes and fears provoked by the television coverage of the exquisite agony of Day Four at Lord’s.
Ball Three – James Franklin produces a Goldilocks declaration as the pennant travels south to Lord’s
The match at HQ was one for the ages, demonstrating everything, and I mean everything, that is good about the game. Nick Gubbins, in the season of his life, dug in against a Yorkshire attack potent enough to leave out Liam Plunkett, and made 125 when no team-mate could cross 50, getting his team up to a competitive 270. That knock’s value was made immediately obvious as Alex Lees, Gary Ballance and Andrew Gale failed to register a run between them and Tim Bresnan found himself at the crease with Andy Hodd, only playing because a keen as mustard Jonny Bairstow was instructed to rest by the ECB. Bresnan played the innings of his life, a seven and a half hours 142* with support from his wicket-keeper and his all-rounder Azeem Rafiq, securing the vital fifth bonus point in the company of Number 11, Ryan Sidebottom. But Gubbins got a start again and found a partner in Dawid Malan, as their runs got Middlesex into a position from which James Franklin could negotiate a target with Andrew Gale. An hour’s unedifying thrash (best forgotten) set up a final afternoon chase of 240 in 40 overs, and set Twitter alight with ill-judged comments about how Yorkshire would bat comfortably to a victory and the title after Franklin’s “foolishness”. The equation looked about right to me in a match that both teams had to keep pushing for the win – and Franklin had extracted a commitment that Yorkshire would do exactly that, a promise kept. Toby Roland-Jones, a long time favourite of this column, proved the hero, his hat-trick prompting delirium in London and despondency in Taunton. Middlesex went unbeaten over the season and had managed to flog a second win out of the flattest pitch in the country in a matter of weeks – they are worthy winners.
Ball Four – Bears maul sorry Lancashire
While the White Rose was fighting to win Division One, the Red Rose was fighting to stay in it, matched up with fellow trapdoor candidates, Warwickshire. After Jordan Clark and Tom Bailey had dismissed a home XI in which seven batsmen made 16 or more, but none topped Sam Hain’s 52, Steven Croft’s decision to exercise his right to bowl first looked a good one. But, with Haseeb Hameed’s season-long heroics finally catching up with the Bangladesh bound teenager, Lancashire’s batting was no match for Ian Bell’s experienced and potent attack, the visitors subsiding to 152 all out. Chasing an unlikely 347 in the fourth innings to win, Lancashire lasted just 61 overs for a pitiful 109 all out to ensure Division One cricket will be played at Edgbaston in 2017. Whether the same could be said for Old Trafford depended on events just outside Southampton.
Ball Five – Hampshire deflated at the Rose Bowl
After an international season that started with great hopes and finished in disappointment, Hampshire skipper, James Vince, made 92 to lift his team to the relative comfort of 411 in the first dig. The visitors needed a gutsy 99 not out from wicketkeeper, Michael Richardson, to keep the deficit to 50, but Ryan Pringle’s offies and Scott Borthwick’s leggies proved too much for Hampshire’s strokemakers who never got going second time round and, needing a win, Vince could set a target of just 296 in 78 overs against a team who knew they could shut up shop if required. On a tricky pitch, Mark Stoneman made 137 and Borthwick 88 to bequeath 22 points to Paul Collingwood, a nice leaving present as they set off for The Oval. Hampshire will play in the expanded, lopsided Division Two in 2017, ten points their gap to seventh placed Lancashire whose collapsing form suggests that big changes are required in the winter.
Ball Six – The Final Over’s County Championship Select XI
Keaton Jennings (Durham)
Nick Gubbins (Middlesex)
Chris Rogers (Somerset, Captain)
Kumar Sangakkara (Surrey)
Scott Borthwick (Durham)
Tim Bresnan (Yorkshire)
John Simpson (Middlesex, Wicketkeeper)
Toby Roland-Jones (Middlesex)
Jack Brooks (Yorkshire)
Jack Leach (Somerset)
Jake Ball (Nottinghamshire)
12th Man Keith Barker (Warwickshire)