Simon Harmer stars for Essex as they take control once more at Chelmsford
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Essex (106-0) trail Middlesex (246) by 140 runs
Simon Harmer became the leading wicket-taker in Division One this season when he added a third successive five-wicket haul as Essex skittled Middlesex for 246 in the day-night Specsavers County Championship at Chelmsford.
The South African off-spinner had just 19 wickets to his name a week ago, but has doubled that in three innings and now has 38 at 24.53 each. He followed up his career-best match figures of 14 for 128 against Warwickshire with five Middlesex wickets for 77.
It had looked unlikely that Harmer would have much impact on the match when Mohammad Amir and Jamie Porter were swinging the pink ball prodigiously in the first 20 minutes, and Middlesex were two for two. But the ball suddenly softened and for a time it looked as if the batsmen were going to get on top.
But despite being thumped for sixes when Paul Stirling was in his pomp, Harmer reeled in the reigning champion’s middle-order. He took three wickets in 12 balls at a personal cost of one run to reduce Middlesex from 225 for six to 231 for nine.
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Harmer’s only blip was to put down Stirling at second slip before the Irishman was fully into his stride. It was a routine catch at chest height for the usually reliable fielder. Stirling was 23; nine balls later he had reached 49. A further three balls and he had his third 50-plus score in five Championship innings.
Dawid Malan and Steve Eskinazi had put on 126 for the third wicket at a steady pace, but it was during Stirling’s 50-ball 77, which included eight fours and five sixes, that it looked as though Middlesex might post something of note.
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By close of play, at 9.17pm, Essex had taken a sizeable chunk out of Middlesex’s score with Alastair Cook and Nick Brown putting on an unbroken stand of 106 for the first wicket from 36 overs. Cook was 64, Browne 40.
The day-night experiment attracted a Chelmsford crowd that peaked around 2,200, slightly higher than usual, with the office staff replacing those who had trains to catch as the evening wore on.
Middlesex had given Essex first go with the pink cherry and must have regretted the decision almost immediately. Amir had his first Essex wicket on the board with the sixth ball of his opening spell, beating Nick Gubbins with one that came in and trapped him lbw. Five balls later, Nick Compton got one that held up and he snicked Porter behind.
Malan, captaining in the absence of James Franklin, who is suffering with a back complaint, led the Middlesex recovery with Eskinazi. Both batsmen reached their fifties in the first over after the first break, from successive balls. Malan scrambled a single to mid-on from the 78th ball he faced, Eskinazi from a paddle-sweep for his eighth four from 85 balls. They had been chanceless innings, bar the odd playing and missing, until Eskinazi, on 55, turned one through Dan Lawrence’s hands at short leg.
The third-wicket pair were finally parted after 33 overs when Simon Harmer got one to straighten and take the outside of Malan’s bat. Malan faced 93 deliveries for his 60.
Eskinazi followed soon after, edging Porter to Cook at first slip for a 111-ball 66. And Amir had John Simpson shuffled tentatively on to his back foot to be plumb lbw as Middlesex slipped from 126 for two to 158 for five in five overs.
Stirling decided that the best way to deal with Harmer was to hit to leg, and he did so to great effect. At the other end Ryan Higgins contributed just six to a sixth-wicket stand of 61. The young Zimbabwean then had a rush of blood and hit Harmer up in the air so high that Tom Westley covered the 20 yards from mid-on to mid-off and still had time to steady himself.
Stirling continued unabated and at one stage had hit three sixes in six balls, hooking two of them in an over from Paul Walter, and lifting Harmer straight back over the bowler’s head. But the one-man assault ended when he turned Harmer into Ryan ten Doeschate’s hands at cover.
Olly Rayner left in similar fashion in the same over, and Harmer had a fifth wicket in his next over when Tim Murtagh was another lbw victim. The innings ended in its 60th over when Steven Finn patted the ball back to Ravi Bopara.
Cook and Browne went along serenely in reply with the England opener making the most of the experience of batting in the twilight. He was dropped in the covers by Gubbins off Finn on 48 before bringing up his fourth Championship score of more than fifty from 67 balls, nine of them hit to the boundary.