First day: Warwickshire trail Middlesex by 261 runs with six first-innings wickets intact
A fine debut by South Africa fast bowler Makhaya Ntini wasn't enough to give Warwickshire the initiative on the first day of their key County Championship match against Middlesex.
Ntini added a sharper edge to Warwickshire's bowling attack than has been seen for some time, claiming four wickets, but the old failings with the bat came back to haunt the champions and they finished the day very much on the back foot.
Ntini didn't take long to announce his arrival in county cricket. With his first delivery, the opening ball of the match, he had Ed Smith well caught at slip.
Ntini is believed to be the first Warwickshire bowler to make such a start since Chris Lethbridge had Geoff Boycott taken in the slips by Dennis Amiss with his first delivery. Sadly, it was all downhill from there for Lethbridge in 1981 and for Warwickshire yesterday.
In truth, Ntini's wicket came from nothing more than a gentle loosener, well wide of the off-stump. He was clearly somewhat rusty after his layoff and will improve for the workout.
The wicket prefaced an unusual day's cricket. On a blameless pitch, batsmen lived fast and died young. Neither side can afford to lose this game, but the pace of the match so far suggests that a positive result is inevitable.
Middlesex are certainly in by far the more comfortable position. Having been dismissed for 323, they then reduced Warwickshire to 62 for four at the close.
Nick Knight's decision to insert Middlesex upon winning the toss was bewildering, yet looked to have been vindicated when the hosts subsided to 139 for six. But Warwickshire's failure to take first use of a dry and flat pitch suggests that Knight's confidence in his batsmen is waning. On the evidence of their performance later, that's understandable. They look bereft of form and confidence.
Middlesex batted like a team that had plans for Friday afternoon. Intent of playing positive strokes, several of them perished by the sword. That their total was subsequently made to look impressive says more about Warwickshire's batting than it does their own. This is a pitch on which anything less than 400 is inadequate. ECB pitch inspector Mike Denness announced himself quite satisfied.
Despite their early loss, Middlesex were soon cruising along at five runs an over. Owais Shah batted beautifully, latching on to short balls with clinical force and easing the over-pitched deliveries to the boundary as he cantered to a run-a-ball half-century.
Ben Hutton was more circumspect. He was struck a fearful blow on the helmet by Ntini and accumulated mainly in nudges and deflections, but at 117 for one, Middlesex had exposed Knight's decision to insert them as folly.
The hard work done, they contrived to lose five wickets for 22 in just 37 balls. Hutton's fall, beaten by a quicker ball from Alex Loudon after the batsman had reached 49, began the decline but the key dismissal was Shah, who eased the ball to mid-off and was yards out of his ground when Knight hit the stumps with his direct hit.
Worse was to follow as Middlesex lost three wickets without addition.
Ed Joyce played across a straight one from Dewald Pretorius, who bowled better than his figures of two for 85 suggested, before Jamie Dalrymple fenced at a short ball outside off stump. Ben Scott followed just two balls later, unable to deal with Ntini's pace and bounce and, with six wickets down at lunch, Knight must have felt his gamble had paid off.
The brittle nature of Middlesex's top-order batting was placed in perspective by the efforts of the tail. Middlesex added 58 for the seventh wicket, 50 for the eighth and
a killer stand of 71 for the tenth, boosting the total beyond 300. Paul Weekes was especially successful, milking tired bowlers and protecting the lower order so well that the score was doubled, and the ease with which the tail played the Warwickshire bowlers suggests there are runs aplenty in this pitch.
Warwickshire could not extract them, however, and lost Ian Westwood in the fourth over, pinned in front when he missed a straight one. Trott, dropped at slip on four fencing at a ball well away from his body, was unable to take advantage. Two overs later he attempted an extravagant drive without moving his feet, perishing to the wicketkeeper off an inside edge.
Knight, in depressing familiar fashion, was bowled off the inside edge prodding at a ball without moving his feet while Jim Troughton inexplicably left a straight delivery that hit off stump. He, too, had been reprieved in the slips.
Middlesex?s opening pair bowled well. Stuart Clark is a strapping Australian fast bowler, not unlike Shaun Tait, who hits the bat hard and might have played Test cricket had injury not intervened. Here, he bowled decidedly sharply, gaining movement off the seam. Mel Betts also bowled fast and straight.
Alex Loudon prospered against the support bowling in the evening sunshine but there is much work to do today. Warwickshire are in a tailspin and it will take dramatic intervention to halt their descent.