Lancashire 259 (Livingstone 84, Croft 55*) and 14 for 1 (Cummins 1-2) trail Middlesex 337 (Simpson 167*, Sowter 52, Bailey 5-78) by 64 runs
Early morning mist lies like cotton wool on the rich earth between Southport and Burscough. At Deansgate station passengers spill from commuter trains like clothes from holiday suitcases. Lancashire stewards grunt kindly good mornings in the suddenly chill autumnal air. As the players warm up on the outfield at Old Trafford in readiness for a 10.30 start queues form at the coffee shop attached to the ground. A day's cricket stretches beyond itself even as it is self-contained. All these things we will miss in less than a fortnight's time; they have framed our lives. And we shall also miss like hell great days like this and brilliant unbeaten centuries such as that played by Middlesex's John Simpson on this most memorable of September afternoons
It would, though, have been understandable if even Lancashire supporters had viewed Middlesex saving the follow-on this Tuesday morning with strangely mixed feelings. Their bowlers' failure to capitalise on an evening in which they had taken six wickets for a song could be balanced against the near certainty that the match would now stretch into its last possible day. Such relief seemed to define irony by close of play, when Middlesex had taken a 78-run lead and then removed Alex Davies caught at long leg for a duck with only one run on the board.
Quite early, though, an acceptable fightback had become disagreeable resistance and by mid-afternoon the regulars in Old Trafford's 1864 suite had been put off their Pont-l'Évêque and claret. It hardly made things any better that the principal author of their unhappiness was Simpson, a cricketer as soaked in Lancastrian heritage as any of his opponents.
When Simpson trotted off the Old Trafford outfield at just gone five o'clock he had a career-best 167 not out against his name. He had hit 26 fours, many of which were stroked through the covers or clipped with Germanic efficiency through midwicket. His one six was eased over long off when Liam Livingstone tossed a ball up at the start of the afternoon session. By then, though, Simpson and James Harris had already ushered their side towards respectability. For one thing, the follow-on had been saved; for another, the whole temper of the match had altered.
There were many signs of this change: lbw appeals, two of which were successful on Monday evening, were now greeted with impassive expressions or murmured 'not outs' from the umpires. A match that had been filled with Lancastrian joy now saw Middlesex progress smoothly past modest landmarks: the 50 partnership, a total of 100, the century stand. False shots, barely remarked on when the innings was crumbling, now attracted fresh interest.
Lancashire made their first breakthrough - though it betokened no great change in the day's pattern - when Harris was bowled for 32 by a high-class leg spinner from Matt Parkinson. He had put on 107 with Simpson. Toby Roland-Jones also made 32 before skying Parkinson to Graham Onions but by the time that wicket fell hope had replaced expectation for Lancashire's bowlers. Nathan Sowter put on 94 with Simpson and his fresh range of stroke drained further energy from Dane Vilas's attack. When Sowter departed for 52, slashing Saqib Mahmood to Livingstone at slip, Middlesex were in the lead and the county's ninth-wicket record against Lancashire had been broken. Shortly after the visitors were bowled out another statistic was unearthed: their 337 is the largest total ever scored in a first-class match by a side who have lost their first six wickets for under 40 runs
But this day also carried with it a sense of Lancastrian pride. Simpson's century was his seventh in first-class cricket but his first against Lancashire. One imagines the latter consideration matters to him. Simpson, you see, was born in Bury and played Lancashire League cricket for Haslingden before spending a couple of seasons broadening his cricketing experience with Ormskirk in the Liverpool Competition. He was also in Lancashire's Academy but once it became clear that Gareth Cross and Alex Davies were blocking his progression he moved to Middlesex and put down roots in the metropolis. It must also be noted that Simpson's father, Jack, also a wicketkeeper-batsman, was a Lancashire League legend, making over 300 appearances for Ramsbottom and Haslingden and having 463 dismissals to his credit.
And so a match which has already followed an utterly unlikely course is set for a fascinating conclusion, one that befits the season's end at a great ground. Lancashire are still on course for their first unbeaten season since 1974, when their invincibility hoisted them to a majestic eighth place in the old 17-team championship. But Middlesex, with little to play for but pride, may inflict a first defeat on a team they had hoped to join in the First Division next season.
That aspiration is dead but pride and professionalism matters to almost all county cricketers. If Middlesex's players needed any reminding of that, it was available to them on the first evening of this game when the club president, Mike Selvey, spent time in their changing room, perhaps making the players aware of a few first principles He then, as is the hospitable nature of these occasions, took the players for dinner. Twenty-four hours later Middlesex had recovered magnificently and are involved in one of the championship's great games. And John Simpson had made a century which will stay in the mind even as the season of soups and stubble fields advances upon us.