Northamptonshire’s batters consistently made starts without converting as they were bowled out for 219 on the opening day at Merchant Taylors’ School.
Toby-Roland Jones, Tom Helm, Ethan Bamber and Ryan Higgins claimed two wickets apiece to ensure the visitors failed to add to their one batting point this season despite an excellent 49 from all-rounder Saif Zaib.
The hosts sent Bamber in as nightwatchman alongside regular opener Mark Stoneman and the pair batted through the five remaining overs to close 23-0 in reply.
For any who’d had enough Bazball drama from the Headingley Test this was the antidote, or a day for the county cricket connoisseur – a day of line and length bowling with ongoing assistance for the seamers and every run hard earned.
Northamptonshire chose to bat on winning the toss but runs proved hard work from the get-go. Boundaries were rare while the visitors struggled to rotate the strike, so allowing Middlesex to dictate the pace of the game. And frustratingly for Northamptonshire, every time a batter appeared set a wicket would fall.
Ricardo Vasconcelos was a case in point when shortly after finding the boundary for the third time he feathered one from Higgins (2-33) through to wicketkeeper John Simpson.
That brought debutant Justin Broad to the crease, the German international playing his maiden first-class game after signing a contract with Northamptonshire last month. Broad and Gay began to look more settled, Broad cutting one fiercely to the fence at point while Gay unfurled a majestic cover drive.
Middlesex’s breakthrough came when Josh de Caires was thrown the ball for the obligatory spinner’s over before lunch. Fresh from his career best 7-144 against Hampshire a fortnight ago, he slid one past Gay’s defense to trap him on the crease.
The afternoon’s play was soporific. Broad began with successive fours off Helm, but once the bowler extracted revenge by trapping him leg before the runs all but dried up. There were long passages between wickets, but Northamptonshire’s batters struggled to advance the game.
Sam Whiteman nicked Higgins to the recalled Stephen Eskinazi at slip, the catcher immediately leaving the field. News came later Middlesex’s white-ball skipper had suffered a bruised finger and he may now bat lower down the order than originally planned.
Rob Keogh ate up 40 balls in reaching 12 before he was castled by Roland-Jones (2-49), who then had his opposite number Luke Procter caught behind in his next over.
At that stage Middlesex were almost through, but they gave a life to wicketkeeper Lewis McManus soon after tea, de Caires shelling the nick at first slip.
The drop proved costly as with the Kookaburra ball having gone soft, McManus proved a good foil for the more expansive Zaib, who drove the ball more convincingly than his teammates further up the order.
The new ball was taken in gloomy light, Bamber’s first ball spitting off a length and striking Zaib a nasty blow on the hand.
He quickly recovered as the half-century stand was raised around a brief stoppage for rain and bad light, before Bamber trapped McManus lbw for 24, the third Northamptonshire batter to be out for that score.
Helm got rid of Tom Taylor with a short ball that sharply lifted though his attempts to catch Zaib similarly in two minds failed spectacularly when the all-rounder hooked successive balls over the ropes for six, shots out of context with everything that had gone before.
The blows raised the 200 but Bamber bowled Zaib with a ball that moved noticeably off the pitch one short of what would have been an excellent 50 before a mix-up run out ended the innings.