So, Middlesex have been relegated to the second division of the county championship barely a year after a memorable Toby Roland-Jones hat-trick against Yorkshire propelled them to their first championship title for 23 years in a thrilling denouement. And this season’s top-tier relegation battle was also uncommonly tight, with Middlesex finishing just a point behind a relieved Somerset and two points adrift of both Yorkshire and Hampshire.
But is that the end of the 2017 relegation story? I ask only because it could have finished rather differently, following a bizarre incident at The Oval in late August when a game between Surrey and Middlesex, which was drifting towards a draw on the final afternoon, was abandoned after a crossbow bolt was fired from outside the ground onto the field of play just after 4.30pm. The bolt landed between two Surrey fielders whereupon armed police effected a controlled evacuation of the ground.
Thankfully, no one was hurt. But Middlesex felt the pain when they were consequently docked two points for being two overs short of the required over-rate, having suddenly been denied, through no fault of their own, the opportunity to improve their over-rate in that final session. For Middlesex, the loss of those two points has subsequently proved the difference between safety and relegation.
I’m not a Middlesex supporter. Never have been, never will be. But if I was connected to the club in any way, shape or form, I would be spitting blood.
With the state of the match as it was (Middlesex 247 & 214-7, Surrey 280) and the weather set fair, it’s inconceivable that Middlesex wouldn’t have declared and sufficiently improved their over-rate before the players shook hands.
If there were ever extenuating circumstances for a slow over-rate penalty to be overturned, these were them. In the days following the match, Middlesex made representations to the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), but were advised that “since the ECB has chosen to follow the published playing conditions in this instance, there is no scope for any further appeal”.
It was a ridiculous decision by the ECB and it’s one that has returned to haunt them. Middlesex, unsurprisingly given their relegation, are seeking further talks, though there would be hell to pay if the ECB now make the decision they should have made early last month, because that would mean Somerset being relegated, which would be grossly unjust at this post-season juncture. (Mind you, the ECB have got previous in that respect – witness Durham’s demotion last year.)
The solution is straightforward. Keep both Middlesex and Somerset in Division One, so that each tier is restored to nine counties and return the playing schedule to 16 matches per county, rather than last season’s 14.
But that won’t happen. We’re constantly being told that today’s cricketers play too much cricket – hence the reason for the previous reduction in the number of championship matches. It’s all the Twenty20 cricket that has to be fitted in, don’t you know?
What a mess.