Honours were fairly even at the close of the first day of an interesting encounter between the Nottinghamshire and Middlesex sides, both of whom had moments in the ascendancy, but neither of whom failed to fully press home their advantage.
The pre-match build up was dominated by a flurry of interest surrounding the morning match up between between Aussie opener Ed Cowan, and the much sought-after new signing for Middlesex, James Harris. Harris, whom Director of Nottinghamshire Cricket Mick Newell openly admitted to having pursued this winter, was the sought after signing of the summer. Middlesex’s triumph in capturing the 22-year old Welshman, who already has more than 200 First Class wickets to his name, and was courted by practically every side in the country, was no mean feat. Yet it was another Middlesex bowler who grabbed the attention on an intriguing opening day, where both Ed Cowan and James Taylor made contrasting half-centuries for Nottinghamshire.
Toby Roland-Jones was a nuisance to the Nottinghamshire batsmen thoughout, managing to exploit the hint of variable bounce in the pitch on a day where Nottingham threatened, but never managed, to take control. Although neither as tall, nor quick as Middlesex absentee Steven Finn, the 25 year-old has magnificent control for a young man who, before this game, had played just 30 matches First Class matches for his county. Such was his threat, that skipper Chris Rogers chose to relegate Harris in favour of Roland-Jones for the second new ball.
Despite the glorious sunshine, which reflected around the empty white seats at Trent Bridge, it was no great surprise that Middlesex chose to insert Notts after winning the toss, on a greening pitch, which offered some help to the seamers throughout, but where runs looked as equally gettable as wickets, with a little focus and application. Australian opener Ed Cowan, who looked to enjoy the opportunity to become better accustomed to English pitches, and in particular Trent Bridge – where the first Ashes Test will take place – looked in good touch from the start. Ironically for a man who is as Australian as they come, he has a technique befitting that of an old-school English opener. He looked to get forward throughout his knock of 61, and nonchalantly drove his first three balls through the covers for four. Cowan was also particularly profitable through the backward point region, where a gentle push was usually enough to send the ball scurrying towards the boundary. The strip, set well towards the Bridgeford Road side of the ground, meant for an inordinately short third-man boundary, and it was not long before Middlesex set a man pack on the fence, attempting to stem the flow of runs toward what had been a very fruitful area for the Nottinghamshire openers.
Nottinghamshire were moving along relatively assuredly until Roland-Jones found a little extra lift in his second over to have Alex Hales caught low down at first slip by David Malan for 20. It perhaps nipped away a little, yet it was the length which undid Hales, who pushed far enough from his body to nick off. It was just reward for an excellent start for the tall seamer, who then trapped Michael Lumb in front the very next ball. Lumb, who had to turn down the opportunity to play in the season’s IPL on instruction from Mick Newell, may well have spent his long walk back to the pavilion pondering the delights of being in India thrashing white ball to kingdom come, as opposed to facing the red, as Roland Jones induced some late swing to leave the England Twenty20 international playing down the wrong line. The decision seemed a straightforward one for Umpire Neil Mallender, although Lumb walked off gesturing towards his bat.
The dismissal of Cowan to the fourth ball after lunch, caught at square leg, carelessly flicking a ball off his pads, brought James Taylor to the crease. Surprisingly excluded from England’s thirty-man squad this summer, Taylor will be conscious of the need to score heavily this season, and his battle with the other potential England hopeful James Harris was an intriguing one in the post-luncheon period. Taylor, always busy at the crease, looked to stamp his authority on the game at first; in one over, he flashed hard outside the off stump, squirting the former Glamorgan man down to the third man boundary, was left with little more than connecting with the fresh spring air on several occasions, before finally top edging a cut shot through Olly Raynor’s fingertips at second slip when on 16. Harris, who bowled steadily, but without much threat in the opening hour of the morning session, seemed to find a better rhythm after lunch, and the tense hour or so which followed, initiated by Cowan’s demise, proved for some intriguing cricket.
Yet, when Taylor brought up his half century in the 65th over, off 145 balls, Nottinghamshire seemed to have weathered the storm, despite the unfortunate loss of Samit Patel before tea. Taylor never fully looked at ease, but his attritional knock was a vitally important one for his side, and was garnished by one beautiful cover drive, and several well timed flicks off his legs. It was from the surprising source of Neil Dexter’s medium pace though, that Taylor was undone. The manner of his dismissal will also lend further weight to the arguments of those who feel his game relies overly on a leg-side dominant scoring game. Looking to push a length ball through the midwicket region, Dexter found the Lions Captain’s leading edge, and the chance was snaffled by the diving Sam Robson at gully.
Nottinghamshire then construed to lose their final 7 wickets for 74 runs; a bizarre run out which left Rikki Wessels stranded mid pitch, and Andre Adams’ inexplicable decision to step away and hammer Tim Murtagh straight down the throat of long off, the worst of the dismissals. The innings was polished off by Roland-Jones, who grabbed the final wicket of Chris Read, caught at deep square leg looking for quick runs, before he ran out of partners.
Despite the terrible weather this winter, the Nottinghamshire ground staff have produced an excellent cricket wicket; enough variable bounce for the bowlers to exploit, yet a hardness underneath which gives good carry and an opportunity for the batsmen to time their shots. Cowan’s knock was rather reflective of the innings as a whole – an excellent beginning, but tarnished by a rather sloppy, disappointing end. With Middlesex surviving the final three overs of the day, the level to which their batsmen apply themselves tomorrow will have a significant bearing on the direction of this game. As Ed Cowan suggested after the close of play, Notts perhaps “left a few runs on the field”. He was right, but the reason for that was as much Roland-Jones’s performance, as it was careless batting.