Higgins and Murtagh lay a few on Kent as Middlesex hold edge in basement scrap

Higgins and Murtagh lay a few on Kent as Middlesex hold edge in basement scrap
Higgins and Murtagh lay a few on Kent as Middlesex hold edge in basement scrap

Kent 186 (Compton 52, Murtagh 4-40, Bamber 4-42) and 40 for 2 (Murtagh 2-9) trail Middlesex 229 (Higgins 71, Agar 4-60) by 3 runs

Sometimes, you can measure the importance of a fixture by the quality of play. It’s not always a direct correlation.

There’s a lot on this one here at Lord’s between Middlesex and Kent, not least because these relegation candidates only play each other once this season. Taking points off each other, perhaps even landing a couple of psychological blows, is all the more important. As 16 wickets fell on day two, it was clear these historic counties have simply resorted to clawing clumps out of each other.

This has not been pretty or particularly high-grade cricket. Both sets of batters deserve a lot better than this pitch – the closest you can be to the Tavern Stand for a first-class match – though their decision-making has left a lot to be desired. It speaks volumes that the main run-getters on either side have been a barnacle-like Ben Compton, with 52, and a brawler in Ryan Higgins, who made 71. A lot of the usual principles have been lacking.

And because of that, it has been a lot of fun. Red-ball fast food for the soul, packed full of the bad stuff that’s actually good as you’re taking it all in. Regarding the bare facts: Middlesex are in the better spot for now, though not by much. They will go into the weekend with a lead of just three but with two of Kent’s second-innings wickets.

Only in the last two hours of day two did the hosts take hold of this match. Higgins, a fourth half-century of the season in the bag from 93 deliveries, peppered the short boundary to the Tavern Stand, two sixes helping him fashion an extra 21 from 14 deliveries before he was caught well by Michael Hogan down at long-on. By then, the allrounder had added 126 alongside Luke Hollman, Tom Helm and Tim Murtagh, which took Middlesex ahead of Kent and onto a lead of 43. The real killer came when Zak Crawley was dismissed for a golden duck and then followed by Daniel Bell-Drummond lbw, as Murtagh took two in two at the start of the second innings.

Those final flourishes with the bat were vital for Middlesex. And to be fair, “flourishes” probably undersells it. They were 90 for 6 when Hogan got one to pitch leg and seam to off from over the wicket to catch John Simpson’s edge through to Sam Billings. That brought an end to what at the time was the longest and most productive stand – 10.3 overs, 28 runs – which came in response to yet another top-order collapse from Middlesex. This one was 25 for 4, coming after a fifth-gear start from Mark Stoneman and Sam Robson, who raced to 22 after the first two overs.

The manner of Stoneman’s demise – technically caught Jordan Cox at first slip, but parried his way by Crawley at second – spoke of how hard he was going. What seemed like an approach carried over from the remarkable run-chase of last week against Nottinghamshire on the other side of the square came to an end then and there. Wes Agar would end up with both openers on his way to a tidy four, with Grant Stewart nabbing Pieter Malan with a tame half-volley outside leg stump that was helped around the corner, before Max Holden presented the bat face to one well outside off stump. Stand-in captain Stephen Eskinazi was the last of those five to fall for just 62 runs when he feathered an edge off Matthew Quinn’s first ball of the match.

It was broadly reminiscent of the fightback from Kent, 92 for 6 themselves before they re-emerged on Friday morning on 113 for 6. They managed 73 more, albeit from a source other than Compton, who arrived locked in on 38 not out.

Having been the lone survivor from the top order, one expected much of the same perseverance. But when he was bounced out by Bamber, one of the friendliest bowlers on the circuit (for disposition; his manipulation of the Dukes borders on cruel), Stewart decided to take a short-cut to a respectable score on this surface via the smaller boundary.

Unlike Higgins, Stewart didn’t quite have the support at the other end but he bettered him for power by hitting the top of the Allen Stand rather than just clearing the rope, as Higgins did when just evading Crawley at deep square leg. A 10th first-class fifty for Stewart looked certain, even when he skied Higgins over the wicketkeeper. Tom Helm, however, charged in and took a spectacular tumbling catch – the kind that makes you wince and check he’s okay before applauding – to clip his and Kent’s wings.

That Crawley was dismissed as quickly as he was felt an inevitability, not only given the scrappiness of this match but the fact it means he has followed up last week’s 170 with 11 and 0. Streaky is as streaky does, but the delivery from Murtagh – lifting much higher than usual after urging the bat to come forward – was worthy of a dismissal regardless of batter.

What bodes well for Kent is how seamlessly Jack Leaning ticked over on 19. His approach to the hat-trick ball was brave, advancing down the track to ensure he was not caught on the crease, offering a full face and keeping out Murtagh. He applied that clear head throughout. Compton, of course, quickly reacquainted with the grind and, together, they worked through to the bad light call that came after 17 overs with a degree of comfort, bar the odd vociferous appeal.

This match could well be done with a day to spare, and the best you can say of what we’ve seen so far is it’s hard to say who will end up on top.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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