Group Two strugglers dig deep after Surrey dangle carrot but chase fizzles out after drizzle
Middlesex 160 (Simpson 68, Clark 4-41, Roach 4-61) and 250 for 6 (Gubbins 124, Handscomb 70, Roach 5-86) drew with Surrey 190 (Burns 64, Stoneman 63) and 259 for 2 dec. (Burns 104*, Stoneman 74)
As Robbie White shouldered arms to a Reece Topley short ball, turning the London derby into the seventh rain-affected draw out of eight County Championship fixtures this week, The Oval breathed a collective sigh of relief. Wild shifts in dominance engineered by high-quality internationals and spirited captaincy were not enough to beat the weather but it was to the credit of Nick Gubbins and Peter Handscomb that a definitive result had been a realistic proposition for so much of the final day.
Handscomb, averaging a wretched 7.50 for the season as captain, had joined Gubbins with Middlesex 47 for 2, needing another 243 to win in a nominal 45.3 overs and with Topley and Kemar Roach finding some assistance under ominous clouds. With little reason to trust in his defence from the evidence of his summer to date, Handscomb decided to attack and the partnership blossomed after tea: Gubbins flayed boundaries through extra cover, Handscomb whipped through midwicket off his pads, and Surrey threatened to lose their nerve.
Gubbins tucked into Amar Virdi – the only spinner used across the four days – by cutting, working, paddle-sweeping and then dumping him into the JM Finn Stand, bringing up his hundred as the floodlights took over by scrambling a single to mid-off. With the field spread, he scampered ones and twos with Handscomb to keep the required rate in check in a stand eventually worth 172 in 33.2 overs, and the equation was 74 to win from 78 balls before a brief stoppage for the lightest of drizzle.
Five bum-squeaking overs were lost, effectively sticking a knife into Middlesex’s hopes of a derby double. “The difference between chasing seven an over and 10 an over with the field out is quite a big thing,” Gubbins noted. “They stuck the field out and it was tough work.” Wickets tumbled: Handscomb – who had doubled his run tally for the season – nailed a cut straight to deep point, John Simpson was foxed by a slower ball, and after mowing Roach over wide mid-on, Gubbins holed out to Rory Burns on the extra-cover boundary.
When Roach cleaned up Martin Andersson with a cutter to complete his five-for in his final game as a Surrey player, giving him 19 wickets in his last two appearances at The Oval, it looked like he had might even have given them a sniff of an improbable win. But Burns kept the boundary-riders out for too long, and by the time he brought them into the ring, the moment had passed. Fist-bumps followed, and the crowd traipsed home.
There is no greater burden than unfulfilled potential and Gubbins knows that only too well. He was the second-leading run-scorer in Division One when Middlesex charged to the title in 2016 with 1409 runs at 61.26, but has not managed as many as 600 in a Championship season since. Five years ago, a Test cap was only a question of timing, but at 27, he has not been in the England conversation for some time and his first-class average is hovering the wrong side of 35.
But this hundred – his second in as many games at The Oval – was an innings of high class, dominated by clips and pulls through straight midwicket and cuts and drives to cover-point. It was the sort of innings that makes the right people take notice, not least with the Sky cameras in town: belligerent against spin, fluent in tempo, and determined against Roach, one of the world’s most prolific Test seamers against left-handers. Gubbins’ contract is up at the end of the season, and if he decides that he wants a home ground with better pitches than Lord’s – “it does make it slightly more enjoyable for us batters when you get on a wicket where you feel like you can score runs if you play well,” he told Sky after – then there would be plenty of prospective suitors.
Four of Roach’s five wickets came as Middlesex were desperately searching for quick runs but that did little to diminish the send-off he received from those in the crowd who had stuck it out in the late-evening squall. “It was overcast conditions and the ball was shined up nicely but it just didn’t do anything, so we found it pretty tough,” he said. “Hopefully I can come back again: I’m definitely willing and able – but international duties call.”
Indeed, it will be a very different Surrey side against Gloucestershire next week: Sean Abbott has arrived and will come straight in for Roach, while Burns, Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes will be on Test duty and Jason Roy and the Currans are expected to remain unavailable following their post-IPL quarantine. The draw leaves them with an uphill task to finish in the top two and qualify for Division One, while Middlesex look destined for the bottom two despite their spirited efforts this week.
The result was made possible by Surrey’s declaration 25 minutes before lunch, set up by Burns’ unbeaten hundred – his first of the season following six unconverted fifties – and cameos from Hashim Amla and Pope, who hit 19 runs including two slog-swept sixes off a single Tim Murtagh over. The target was 270 in 71 overs, though only 57 were possible on account of the two afternoon stoppages. Mark Stoneman had edged the third ball of the day behind to ensure a statistical oddity (the joint-highest identical first-wicket partnership in both innings of a first-class match, with 135); by the time White left its final ball alone, that seemed like a hazy memory.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98