Middlebrook’s determination leaves contest on a knife edge

Kyle Coetzer made 19 in the County's second innings
Kyle Coetzer made 19 in the County's second innings

There’s a nervous morning in store for both Northamptonshire and Lancashire tomorrow as they seek to open their LV= County Championship accounts.

The equation reads 95 runs or five wickets required, the outcome of an enthralling two sessions of cricket which ebbed and flowed and even though the hosts were beginning to edge ahead by the close, it’s a difficult one to call.

Damp and dank conditions followed early morning rain and prevented any play until 1.45pm but the contest was at such an advanced stage that it was hardly going to make any difference.

The stated target from the previous evening was to prevent the visitors from building too heavily on what already looked like being a healthy advantage and that part of the mission was accomplished successfully.

Once Jos Buttler’s fine innings ended in the third over of the day, Muhammad Azharullah hitting him in front, the rest of the order wilted away as the new ball did it’s work.

Olly Stone was the man who did all of the damage as he took the last four wickets to fall in a span of a dozen deliveries with his brief spell ending with the figures of 6.2-3-7-4.

Tom Smith was the first of his victims as, shortly after reaching his half century, he was smartly taken by a retreating Steven Crook at mid-on.

Glen Chapple fell two balls later as he edged low to second slip and Kabir Ali and Simon Kerrigan failed to hang to hint at anything resembling permanence before they had their off and middle stumps knocked out respectively

That left a target of 240 in aeons of time but with the immediate threat of Chapple and Jimmy Anderson with a hard ball and on a surface that had begun to show, if not dramatically, signs of some uneven bounce.

All the signs hinted at a tall order and when Anderson produced a belter of a delivery to square up Stephen Peters and clip his off stump in the third over the odds lengthened somewhat.

But James Middlebrook and Kyle Coetzer, the latter being dropped on nought and one, made the most of some ordinary fare to put a significant dent in the runs required tally.

In contrast to Middlebrook, the Scotsman wasn’t hinting at any kind of permanence and his cat on a hot tin roof stint concluded when he left an Ali delivery alone only for it to cannon into his off stump.

Everything slowed down after the tea break as Lancashire tightened their line of attack but this was merely the calm before the next squall of wickets.

In the space of eight balls and five minutes, Matt Spriegel, caught at second slip, Rob Newton, caught at first for a pair, and Andrew Hall, caught by a diving third after edging onto his front pad, all departed to leave what was a promising position looking dishevelled.

Through all of this, Middlebrook was chugging away at the other end and although he had a couple of scares, a hook just avoiding deep square-leg and Smith grassing a tricky chance at point, his was a worthy and diligent performance.

He found a willing ally in Ben Duckett and the duo steadied the listing ship to the stage where, after a cagey period, they began to play with an increasing confidence.

That translated into the opener reaching the highest score of the game and by the close, they had added 68 crucial runs to leave the game, as has been the case since the first morning, delicately poised.