Lancashire (267-4) lead Middlesex (265) by 2 runs
If Keaton Jennings was the question at the start of play, Haseeb Hameed, by its close, was the answer. Once a vulnerable target for the shorter ball, now it was his forte, as the Lancashire opener reached his century with a neatly pulled six off the back foot.
Last week Hameed’s double century was dismissed as a warm-up against boys, not men. This week no such accusation could be levelled at an attack containing three Test bowlers and an England Lion. And Hameed, after more than two and a half years in cricketing purgatory, ended a streak of 19 County Championship innings without a 50 with aplomb, his 117 coming at a racy strike rate of marginally below 60.
“It has obviously been difficult and tough at times, quite clearly,” reflected Hameed after play. “The last couple of years have been difficult with the injuries that I have had and the loss of form. But I always believed in myself and believed that if I continued working on my game and going in the right direction, listening to the right people – which has been a learning as well – I would be able to score runs again.”
“I am glad I was able to do that in the first game. Hopefully I can continue doing that for the rest of the year and move forward.”
Move forward indeed as one set of eyes in particular will have felt they had chosen the right match to attend. Sightings of selectors always excite but even more so should they have a history of making surprising, even maverick, picks.
Ed Smith, having plucked Jos Buttler and Adil Rashid from red ball obscurity, and Joe Denly from, well, obscurity, falls neatly into that genre. At the start of this season, Hameed, whose top score last season was 31 from a total of just 165 Championship runs, was curtly reminded by his employers that this was the final year of an increasingly tenuous contract. Obscurity was quickly becoming the destination from which Hameed needed plucking.
While Steven Finn, Toby Roland-Jones and James Harris had agendas of their own to push, they were consigned to the role of probing, testing and trying with all their might to ruffle Lancashire’s openers, whose fortunes quickly became of more interest to Smith. “Rarely could a selector get a better impression of players than this,” remarked commentator Kevin Hand as both Jennings (52) and Hameed quelled Middlesex’s bowlers.
It was a forward defensive push by Hameed for four which first excited ambitious thoughts. Delicate, precise yet still a little nervous, time and again Hameed replayed his resolute defence at the crease, as though worried that if he didn’t, he might forget how.
Cue the short ball barrage. Finn, staking a claim for a first return to the England fold since 2016, strained to prove his worth. On a bouncy wicket the 6ft 7in bowler pummelled the ball into the turf, relentlessly pushing Lancashire’s openers onto the back foot.
At first there was concern; a few tentative prods as Hameed’s spindly fingers, those that were broken twice and which caused so much consternation around his back foot play, failed to withdraw themselves fast enough from the short-pitched barrage. Finn closed in, sensing blood.
But Hameed remained. A quick whip off the hips, then guiding one down to third man and in an instant we had forgotten that Hameed had endured anything at all, his hands soft and his stature confidently poised. Hameed was back, as Lancashire ended the day on 267 for four, already two runs ahead.