Murtagh’s grand brutally exposes Kent flaws as Middlesex go back-to-back

Higgins and Murtagh lay a few on Kent as Middlesex hold edge in basement scrap
Murtagh’s grand brutally exposes Kent flaws as Middlesex go back-to-back

Middlesex 229 (Higgins 71, Agar 4-60) and 86 for 1 (Robson 41*, Malan 24*) beat Kent 186 (Compton 52, Murtagh 4-40, Bamber 4-42) and 128 (Leaning 48, Murtagh 6-42)

In with the arm, a hint of away swing, pitching bang on the seam and straightening into the pads. Perhaps the shot could have been better, if only for the aesthetics of the moment. But if there was one person who could appreciate Matt Quinn’s awful heave across the line, it was the bowler himself.

With that, Tim Murtagh had his sixth wicket of Kent’s second innings, a 10th in a match Middlesex went on to win convincingly with nine wickets and four sessions to spare. It was also his 1,000th wicket across all formats for the county, a journey that began 16 years ago.

It was back in April 2007, in the Parks against Oxford UCCE, when Murtagh was chucked on first-change by former ECB national selector Ed Smith, after current Middlesex head coach Richard Johnson and current Sri Lanka head coach Chris Silverwood shared the new ball. Middlesex wicket number one was current Hampton school PE teacher opener Harry Hampton, dismissed LBW – as if you had to ask.

The years roll by. Life moves on, and the game with it. And yet here was Murtagh, a constant throughout, this cheery timelord travelling through generations with only nous and trusty seam for company.

Probably not for much longer, mind. He polished off his usual answer over a potential end this year in pre-season. Essentially, “probably, but who knows?” The difference this time is the assumption of a new role as bowling coach to accompany playing duties.

That hasn’t changed all that much given he’s long been a sage in that Middlesex dressing room. And such “do as I do” performances have been around pretty much as long as he’s worn the three-sword badge.

For those here at Lord’s on this glorious Saturday, to see a seamer who rarely goes over the top with his dismissals pump his fists and roar with glee, opening up the tins containing his emotions like it was the cold one he was nursing at stumps, was something to savour. Murtagh said the celebration was primarily for the 10 because he was unaware of the four-figure feat. “I think I’ve only taken one ten-fer here before,” he said. Not quite – three of his five 10-fers have come at Lord’s.

“I went past a thousand, including Surrey and Ireland, a few years ago, so that felt a big moment then. But it’s nice to get past that landmark just for Middlesex now. I’ve enjoyed my time here, it’s been a long time and who knows how long I’ve got left, so I’m going to enjoy every wicket that I take at the moment.”

That last bit wasn’t intended to be a pointed remark, but he eventually fashioned it into one, accompanied with a wry smile. The response in this match – five-wicket haul number 39, his first since September 2021 against Worcestershire – was fuelled by sitting out the defeat to Northamptonshire and last week’s victory over Nottinghamshire. His presence in this XI was partly due to regular captain Toby Roland-Jones given some prescribed rest. Even in his management role, Murtagh admitted to a “sulk and a bit of a tantrum”.

“I probably wasn’t the best bowling coach in the world on the day before the game (Nottinghamshire) when I found out last week or even on day one of the game,” he said, while peering over to the home balcony to check Johnson was not in earshot. “But I had to get over that fairly quickly; I had my sulk and a bit of a tantrum and said how I felt, which I felt was important. I said to the guys playing ahead of me: ‘I’m here for you now, I’m over that. I’ll support you in any way I can.’ That’s the way I have to be, and that’s the way I should be. That’s the way I will be.

“It is slightly difficult with feeling my way into that role. No one has necessarily really done it before, so it is a bit of new ground. But I get on well with Jonno, we’ll keep talking and keep having conversations. We’ll see what happens in the next few weeks.”

Though Murtagh wasn’t even the oldest player in this match – Michael Hogan has just over two months on him – sightings in whites will continue to be intermittent. That he turns 42 in August is not particularly important, rather the toll on a body which is taking longer to shake. He’s helped himself by ensuring day four – Sunday – is a day of rest.

Kent might themselves be grateful for Murtgah’s milestone. Because as well as he, Ethan Bamber and Ryan Higgins bowled, they have turned in an abject couple of innings with the bat that might have got far more column inches. This second effort was comfortably the worse of the two, their last eight falling for 36, dismissed for 128 and in turn giving Middlesex a fourth-innings chase of 86, knocked off comfortably inside 25 overs.

The visitors were sitting ducks, if that’s not too on the beak considering five scores of nought on their second innings scorecard. Four went to Murtagh, the first two on Friday afternoon when Zak Crawley and Daniel Bell-Drummond were dismissed with the first two deliveries of the innings.

And yet, having arrived on day three with no further losses and trailing by just three – they would take the lead six balls in – Kent could have seized the initiative. Instead, they handed it over like a Bank Holiday Aperol Spritz.

But for an 87-run stand between Ben Compton and Jack Leaning that began from the early rubble, this could have been done earlier than 4:45pm. Even Compton’s defiance, picking up where he left off after 52 in the first innings, allowed Middlesex to basically operate a holding pattern when the left-hander e was on strike.

Having resumed his second innings on 15, he had only added 21 from 79 deliveries faced in the morning session, which ended with Kent skipper Sam Billings trapped LBW to Murtagh without scoring.

Billings was one of three wickets to fall before lunch on day three, the first being the most catastrophic. Jack Leaning had been engaging right from ball one when he kept out Murtagh’s hat-trick delivery by stepping down the track to meet it on the full. He took the odd risk to move the scoring along, such as a boundary in the air through midwicket that just evaded the fielder stationed in that region, an over after Sam Robson came within inches of a sensational grab at second slip when he was on 33.

Leading by 44, Ryan Higgins got one to seam away and take an edge for a simpler chance for Robson, ending Leaning’s knock on 48. Jordan Cox shifted off his pair, but not by much – caught Esknazi at first slip – before Billings’ demise took us to lunch with a collapse of three for 11 from 10 overs.

Then, 13 balls after the restart, the other end opened up. Compton attempted a late cut, trying to access the boundary at the corner of the Edrich and Mound Stand he had tried to find earlier in the day with a heave over midwicket, which he scuffed into his own foot. There was better connection this time but straight to Higgins all alone at gully.

With the lone buttress felled, it didn’t take long for the rest to cave in. Kent went from 104 for five pre-Compton’s demise to 109 for 9, with the last three of those for free in 11 deliveries. The key among them was Grant Stewart – lbw to Bamber – whose first innings salvo of 44 bumped the first innings to 189. That was only about 24 hours earlier, and featured pointed targeting of the short boundary which the more accomplished batters seemed to ignore.

The final pair of Wes Agar and Michael Hogan didn’t, pocketing a six each to that side to take 15 from Murtagh’s 16th and final over, lifting the seamer’s economy rate above two as a consolation prize. At the end of the next over, Tom Helm picked up his first dismissal of the match to finally end Kent’s embarrassment.

When Agar’s first delivery of the chase cut through Robson and raced away for four byes, there was a hint they might be able to save face with the ball. Only Quinn was able to get something of note, removing Mark Stoneman. Pieter Malan came in with an early Saturday finish on his mind, striking four boundaries, including a six, in his 24 not out. Robson pocketed an accomplished 41 not out.

Back-to-back wins lift Middlesex to third in Division One, while Kent’s second defeat of the season have them sixth, having played a game more than the four sides beneath them. Even if plaudits for Murtagh dilute their blame, there is plenty to mull over and undoubtedly changes to make before Hampshire come to Canterbury in 12 days time.

As for Murtagh, his career first-class dismissals now read 934. Given we’re on the subject of four figures…

“A year or so ago, I probably thought I had the chance of getting there,” he said of the prospect of becoming the 217th bowler – 16th this century – of making it to 1,000 wickets in the format. I’m going to have to take a lot of wickets this year to get there. But I also don’t want that to become the reason that I keep playing.

“It’s a nice number, obviously, and it’s a nice thing to be able to say. But if I’m not worth my place in the team or playing, then I don’t want to carry on just for the sake of another 30 or 40 wickets, or whatever it may be at the end of the season. I’ve taken it season by season for the last 10 years, so I’m not going to change now.”

It was worth a worthwhile question, and you’d be annoyed if you didn’t posit it given the circumstances. Such is cricket’s shifting ecosystem, it would be a bit like coming across a T-Rex and not asking how it eats with such little arms.

The likes of Murtagh and Anderson will soon be a thing of the past. And if it’s not too morose a thought on a day of celebration, perhaps we should be thankful that, as far as both are concerned, we soak up what remains of their remarkable careers to inform future generations.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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