There is a sense of history that envelopes the watching of county cricket at Merchant Taylors. The school itself, was founded way back in 1561. The privileged early pupils will have been spared studying Shakespeare, not through lack of interest, but because the Bard himself wasn’t born until three years later. It was only in 1933, however, that the school moved to its current leafy 285-acre Northwood location.
One notable Merchant Taylors alumni, who may well have been keeping a ghostly eye on proceedings as Middlesex and Northants faced off in a must win game, was actor and keen cricketer Boris Karloff. When C Aubrey Smith went to Hollywood in 1929, it was Karloff he teamed up with and together they taught cricket at UCLA whilst playing for together for the Hollywood Cricket Club. Boris’s real name was actually William Henry Pratt, although as far as I know, no relation to the Gary that terrorised Ricky Ponting in the 2005 Ashes.
Horror has certainly been the genre of batting for Middlesex and Northants this, with just two batting points between them so far this season and the Merchant Taylors pitch always looked like it might harbour something to terrorise misfiring batting line ups. Sure enough, if not a procession, there was a steady coming and going of Northamptonshire’s finest, many of whom had appeared well set only to fall to some relentlessly probing Middlesex bowling. Six Northants batters had got past twenty, but only two past 30. Justin Broad, the South African born, German international on debut had looked solid until trapped LBW by Tom Helm and Saif Zaib stood firm until falling one short of his 50. His stand of 55 with Lewis McManus, who had been dropped by De Caires on 6 didn’t get Northants to a second batting point, but it did move the score to 190 and Zaib stayed to see them most of the way to their final 219. Hardly a match winning total, but anything north of 200 on an unpredictable pitch was likely to prove competitive.
With enough help for all bowlers, wickets were duly shared by amongst the Middlesex attack with two each for Roland Jones, Higgins, Bamber and Helm and a handy bonus one for Josh De Caries in the obligatory ‘spinner before lunch’ over.
Left with five overs to face under leaden skies on Day 1, it was no surprise to see Ethan Bamber despatched to accompany Stoneman and together they peered through the gloom to see Middlesex to 23/0 at the close.
Bamber’s middle stump was removed for 11 by Ben Sanderson at the start of the second day, but only after he and Stoneman had smacked a bit of softness into the Kookaburra ball, enjoying its second and final experimental outing in this season’s County Championship. Not exactly prime ‘night hawking’ from Ethan, but job well done none the less.
Generally, overcast conditions prevailed and following Bamber the Middlesex top order, with the exception of Stoneman, found that a ball with their name on was never far away. In consecutive overs, Jack White dismissed Robson caught behind for 28 and then Stoneman, immediately after celebrating his third fifty of the season. The former England opener lingered a while at the crease clearly feeling that the ball that pierced what had been a hitherto solid defence didn’t bounce at all as it should have and seemed to have a point too.
Pieter Malan and Jon Simpson both followed in comparatively rapid order, the former tentatively edging Sanderson to Emilio Gay at slip, the latter to McManus off Taylor. Deja vu all over again for the Middlesex faithful and you could almost hear the strains of The Dance Macabre accompanying the demise of each Middlesex batter in the grandest horror tradition.
However, hope was on the horizon for the home side despite the further losses of Holden who batted superbly for his 41 and De Caires for 10. The ever-reliable Ryan Higgins and Stevie Eskinazi, batting down the order due to a bruised finger, took Middlesex not just passed the Northants score but also to 250 and a bonus batting point whish was warmly and not a little ironically cheered by the Middlesex faithful. Even better, led by Higgins who finished unbeaten on 64, Middlesex closed on 277, when last man Helm attempted to wild swish at the wily Keogh to be stumped. A lead on this pitch that could prove handy indeed.
By the close, just as in the first innings, Higgins had bowled Ricardo Vasconcelos, coming around the wicket for 22 and followed that by removing debutant Broad for 5, thanks to the sharpest of takes from John Simpson standing up. Northants were looking rocky and still 14 behind.
When the teams departed for the evening, with Northants on 55 for 2, still 3 runs shy of Middlesex’s first innings total, the local villagers seemed content with no sign of any angry mob wielding torches and pitchforks.
As Victor Frankenstein screamed on birthing his creation “It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive…IT’S ALIVE!” And so too, at the end of Day 2, are Middlesex’s Division One survival hopes.
Merchant Taylors old boy Boris Karloff would have approved.