As the clock struck 11 and around the country play got under way on the opening day of the County Championship, at Lord’s the hover cover settled gently on to the wicket like a prim gentleman carefully lowering himself on to a new sofa. There is a long summer to come, and this the first of a million minor disappointments. It was barely even rainfall, the gentlest whisper of moisture in the air, soon to be silenced.
A few minutes later the cover had hovered away again and the players emerged from the pavilion to stand for a moment of unity against discrimination, a kind of reserved taking-of-the-straight-knee for white people in cableknit sweaters.
The optimists among them, and there were only a few, wore short sleeves. In the middle the stumps were so cold they had turned blue, though sponsorship may have had something to do with it. The bails were obviously envious, because they were bright green. A new format is not the only novelty to get used to this year.
Somerset are among the favourites for the title, having come second in the competition or its equivalent in each of the past three summers. There is a particular kind of despair reserved for repeated runners-up in major sporting events, groups or individuals who are clearly genuinely exceptional but are never given the medal-wielding photo opportunity to revel in it. They say that what does not kill you makes you stronger, and so far as Somerset are concerned time will tell on that one. The toss brought their first victory of the season, and Tom Abell chose to field. Under steely skies Craig Overton’s first delivery was sent skimming to the rope by Sam Robson. The first over went for 13.
These were not conditions for slip fielding, and the ball tended to bounce off the Somerset cordon rather than stick in it. A tale of frozen fingers, clumsily cupped. Twice Robson was dropped, first by James Hildreth – who made partial amends with a smart take to dismiss Tom Helm later – when he was on 23 and again by Overton on 47. They were to prove expensive mistakes. Scoring slowed after Stevie Eskinazi came to the crease, and the Middlesex captain’s first 10 runs came off 60 deliveries; he was one of those who chose to wear short sleeves, so it was no surprise it took him a while to warm up.
At the other end Robson, having scored 63 from his first 66 balls, took 40 off his next 84, becoming along the way the first centurion of the county season. Middlesex had only one in the whole of last summer, when Robson averaged just 23.88. By the time he was finally out here, guiding a Lewis Gregory delivery into the hands of third slip, he had scored 165 runs, more than double last season’s top score of 82, and rekindled memories of the form that earned him one summer in England’s Test team, seven years ago now, with some fabulous driving off the front foot.
Lunch was taken with the home side on 99 and they moved into triple figures off the third ball after the resumption, a development warmly applauded by one person, sitting outside the pavilion in a pink and blue bobble hat. We are inured by now to the sight of empty stands but there is still something striking about these moments passing with almost no recognition at all.
Soon afterwards Robson completed his century and raised his bat to nobody but the five hardy souls brave enough to step outside their dressing room and a few builders putting the finishing touches to the new, three-tier Edrich and Compton stands.
There were periods in the early afternoon when the sun was bright enough for players to cast shadows, but by tea the floodlights had to be turned on. At stumps Middlesex were 293 for eight and nobody else had scored more than 22; mainly it was Robson who was shining.