A PROVEN middle-order run scorer without international commitments has to be the priority for Middlesex’s Director of cricket Angus Fraser this winter.
Hopes of a first County Championship title in 20 years have been left in tatters following a humiliating innings defeat to lowly Somerset at Lord’s last week – the second loss in as many weeks to a team in the relegation places.
Both were characterised by spineless batting displays by the tenants of Lords, with the loss to Somerset witnessing two capitulations in the space of a day’s play on an excellent batting surface at the home of cricket.
No-one can deny the huge strides made by the club under Fraser’s leadership over the last three seasons, firstly with promotion back to the County Championship’s top table two years ago, followed by an excellent third last season.
In the wake of that progress Fraser opted last winter to strengthen the bowling resources with the arrival of James Harris, insisting at the time his batsmen were more than up to the task.
Five Championship wins in the first 11 games helped mask the fact the batting was struggling once more, but the events of the last two weeks surely suggest some surgery is required if progress is to be maintained.
Of the five wins achieved only at Hove can the batsman claim to have swung the game in the county’s favour, the other four successes built around a seam attack led, some may claim heavily reliant on the magnificent Tim Murtagh – but that is a subject for another day.
Fraser’s batsmen now have less bonus points than any other team in the division – 15 less than leaders Yorkshire.
Five times they have failed to raise a single batting point, while on two other occasions they have managed only one.
An even closer look at the stats reveals the root of the problem as batting positions 3-5.
Throughout the campaign the upper middle order has scrapped together just 1821 championship runs at an average of 28.02.
Only last week’s conquerors Somerset have fared worse (27.19) while the likes of Yorkshire and Sussex have averaged well in excess of 40 in the same positions.
And we should not forget how much worse Middlesex’s figures would look but for the four-match loan spell of Adam Voges, who scored one of only two centuries to come from positions 3-5 this season.
Fraser has been reluctant to name names, but focus must inevitably fall on the trio of Joe Denly, Dawid Malan and Neil Dexter.
Denly arrived to great acclaim in the winter of 2011, looking to re-ignite his England prospects in St John’s Wood, but instead he has seemingly gone backwards with just three championship half centuries and only just over 500 runs to his name in the campaign to date.
The mercurial Malan while flourishing in the white-ball game has no 50s at all in four-day cricket.
No-one who has seen him at his best doubts his talent, but there comes a point when that much bandied about word potential is realised in cold, hard runs on the board.
That potential seemed set to flourish in 2010 when the left-hander posted 1000 first class runs for the first time, but so far that has proved a peak rather than the hoped for springboard to bigger things.
As for Dexter, he has looked more comfortable at the crease than 12 months ago when personal tragedies clearly hampered him, but again the happier place mentally has not translated into more runs.
Perhaps the emphasis on a stronger mental approach brought by new batting coach and former Middlesex legend Mark Ramprakash needs time to seep into the psyche of this trio, but is time a luxury Middlesex can afford?
Adam London has been named in the 13 for this week’s game with London rivals Surrey and it remains to be seen whether he is given a last chance to earn a new contract for 2014.
However, regardless of his success or failure it seems clear reinforcements are needed.
Someone of the calibre of a Wayne Madsen (Derbyshire), the first man to 1000 first-class runs this year, and that in team likely to be relegated.
Worcestershire’s Moeen Ali also appears to be reaching a peak, topping the second division averages this year and with Worcester unlikely to gain promotion may fancy a return to the top flight.
The latter may not come cheap however, having not long signed a long-term contract at New Road.
Whether one of the above or someone from elsewhere, proven run scorers don’t come cheap, so CEO Vinny Codrington may have to raid the piggy bank to find that stability beyond the opening pair Fraser and Middlesex need to make the next step.