Warwickshire 72 for 4 (Rhodes 36*, Murtagh 3-17) trail Middlesex 121 (De Caires 40, Hannon-Dalby 5-29) by 49 runs
The gesture was touching, as was the roar of approval when he blocked his one and only delivery from Chris Rushworth straight back down the pitch, but the timing was a touch discombobulating. After all, at 100 for 9 on the first day of Middlesex’s – and therefore, potentially, Murtagh’s – penultimate match of the season, it wasn’t as if the prospect of a later, and more terminal, visit to the crease was off the table just yet.
And besides, there was something about Middlesex’s distracted display up to that point – even by the standards of their flatlining season – that had reeked already of “benefit match”. Murtagh’s inclusion, for his 264th first-class appearance and his 91st at Lord’s, had come at the expense of the club captain Toby Roland-Jones, and so (apart from anything else) had further weakened one of the most brittle batting line-ups in the land. On the face of it, it seemed an odd moment to ignore the realities of their ongoing race to the bottom with Kent.
But with Kent’s own bonus-point quest being stymied by Tom Lammonby and Lewis Goldsworthy down at Taunton, up stepped Murtagh for his main event, and for the penultimate time on his favourite stage. Seven overs and three wickets later, he’d shown once again that – in bleak autumnal conditions and in your county’s hour of need – sometimes a timeless display of ball-on-a-string seam bowling is all a team needs to get back on an even keel.
Murtagh is 42 years old now, and has effectively been a Lord’s specialist this season, with five of his six Championship appearances now coming at HQ. But what a specialist, and how effective! His ten-wicket haul against Kent in April remains the key reason why Middlesex are not (quite) in the relegation positions, and on this evidence – though Warwickshire closed the day with a degree of poise through Will Rhodes’ 36 not out – it’s not out of the question that Murtagh ends up accounting for half of Middlesex’s four Championship wins in this campaign. There’ve been 14 wickets on this first day, after all. Even allowing for a two-hour rain delay, it’s hard to see this one finishing as a draw.
Murtagh needed a solitary delivery to sow those familiar seeds of doubt, as Rob Yates flinched outside off to a typical delivery that was there to be hit until it was not. His next offering was more inviting still, swinging across the left-hander and gathering shape as it did so, to induce an uncertain flat-footed cut and a fat inside-edge into his stumps – Warwickshire were 0 for 1 after two balls, and the game was unquestionably afoot.
Three overs later, with just one run chiselled from his offerings, Murtagh struck again, courtesy of a superb diving take from John Simpson, flinging himself low to his right to scoop up a snick off Kraigg Braithwaite that was never destined to reach the cordon. Alex Davies then flapped his second ball over the cordon for four as Murtagh hit the seam and found extravagant bounce outside off; that shot was almost certainly on his mind six balls later, as he stabbed a fat front pad down the line to be pinned for the plumbest lbw imaginable.
Even when his spell was done, Murtagh’s impact was arguably still apparent. Ethan Bamber replaced him at the Nursery End, and duly struck with his second ball – from round the wicket, with a touch more pace behind his nip off the seam, to crash past Dan Mousley’s defences and into his off stump. At 42 for 4, the contest was properly in the balance, but Rhodes and Ed Barnard quelled the threat as the light faded, to leave much more of the same required on Wednesday – at Lord’s and at Taunton – if Middlesex are to keep their hopes alive.
If, however, the worst does come to pass for the club, then there’s really no escaping where the fault will lie. Another sickly batting card has left them relying on a soon-to-be-retired stalwart for one more bail-out, and even that is unlikely to be enough if the second innings serves up a similarly passive display.
Warwickshire won the toss and the wickets were quickly passed around, not unlike a puppy at a primary school – soft and moreish. Rushworth struck the first blow, snicking Stoneman’s edge for 13, one ball after he’d induced an almighty waft outside off. Hannon-Dalby bagged the second, as Sam Robson planted his front foot on off stump and was surprised by a hint of nip back into his pads. Craig Miles then came round the wicket to unroot Jack Davies’ off stump, before Ed Barnard struck one over later, condemning Ryan Higgins’ own stump to a similar fate.
Barnard then made it two in four overs as John Simpson wafted into a flimsy cramped cut and feathered an edge through to Michael Burgess for a duck, as Middlesex limped to lunch, five-down and freefalling.
And once the afternoon rain had abated, it was over to Hannon-Dalby, flapping his limbs like a latter-day Bob Willis as he cantered in from the Nursery End, hounding a succession of techniques with high-kicking, stump-threatening line and length. Only De Caires, in the midst of a fine late-season flurry with bat and ball, found the gumption to resist, with a deft scoop over the keeper among his five fours, and a flat slam into the Grandstand for six for good measure. But Murtagh aside, not too many of his team-mates have yet found the fight to match their team’s needs.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket