The penultimate day of county cricket at Trent Bridge this summer was expected to be just a ‘moving day’ as both Nottinghamshire and Middlesex fought for supremacy ahead of the last day showdown.
In truth, it offered more than that; a genuinely brutal tussle between bat and ball as the Division One leaders aimed to trample over the bottom side, who were having none of it.
Middlesex, left to score 235 to remain on top, and send a message of defiance to the north and west, limped to 48 for three at stumps. Jake Ball, their first innings tormentor, did it again, claiming all three scalps at a cost of only 20.
Earlier, Notts were bowled out for 240 – the third such score on a pitch that was used for last week’s ODI and has now sat naked for three more days under the burning sun. Steven Mullaney made 64 but Ollie Rayner’s four 83 and three more wickets for Steven Finn, kept the hosts in check and has helped set up a thrilling finale on Friday.
Toby Roland-Jones bowled a testing line and length during the opening hour of the day and finally gained some reward for his efforts when Jake Libby nibbled outside his off stump and edged to John Simpson for 18.
Mullaney brought up his half century from 75 balls, with seven fours, but perished towards the end of the morning session, when given out lbw against the spin of Rayner. Left-handers Tom Moores and Michael Lumb both fell during the early part of the afternoon; each chasing widish deliveries outside the off stump.
Moores, having crashed Rayner through the covers for his sixth boundary, departed for 28 after looping the spinner gently into the hands of backward point. His more experienced colleague made 16 but was also soon on his way back to the dressing room after flashing at Finn and nicking through to wicketkeeper John Simpson.
That dismissal was the first of Finn’s three during a hostile spell from the Pavilion End; Brendan Taylor was pinned lbw by one that may have been sliding down and Chris Read edged behind. Samit Patel had scored a century in the first innings and worked his way stylishly to 36 before being castled by a Roland-Jones’ delivery that kept that a fraction low.
Ball was pinned lbw by Rayner, payback for the first day when the roles were reversed, but the session ended with Imran Tahir launching Rayner back over his head for the first maximum of the day. Brett Hutton helped stretch the lead with a controlled 32 not out but he was left high and dry when Harry Gurney was run out, trying to get his partner back on strike.
Middlesex’s challenge was immediately put in context when they lost Nick Gubbins to the opening delivery of their second innings. The left-hander, who had batted for more than five hours in the first dig, got a gentle touch to the opening delivery and Read did the rest.
Having taken a wicket with his final ball of the first innings, Ball was on a hat-trick for the second time in the match and as on the opening day it was Nick Compton who made his way out to the middle. With the crowd being whipped up into another state of ‘Ball-mania’ the batsman played party-pooper by keeping out his first ball.
The 25-year old seamer wasn’t to be denied for long though; he removed Sam Robson for the second time in the match, as the opener shouldered his arms and lost his off peg. Dawid Malan followed, as out as an lbw could possibly be.
Nottinghamshire have scrapped here but the loss of four precious batting points, their Achilles’ heel for most of this season, means that even if they can sign off with wins in this game and in their season-ender against Somerset at Taunton, they are already on the brink of dropping into Division Two.
Middlesex, meanwhile, will have had more than one eye on the day’s events at Headingley and Taunton and will hope to maintain their lead at the top of the table by knocking off the remaining 187.
Notts opener Mullaney said: "I think we are in a decent position, although we probably scored a few less than we would have liked, but we have given ourselves a chance going into Day Four.
"Jake [Ball] has been phenomenal all season. This match has been bizarre but great for us that he got the hat-trick and then took a wicket with the first ball in this second innings. Three very good batsmen are out already and if we can get Nick Compton and the next two early tomorrow we have got a good chance."
Middlesex spinner Rayner, who took seven wickets in the match, said: "We knew if we could try and keep them to a reasonable total then we would have a chance of chasing it down and again, I've had an opportunity to bowl a few overs and been able to pick up a couple of poles.
"What happens happens. We try not to look at what is happening around the country because that is totally out of our control. What is under our control is this game and how we approach tomorrow, so the boys have done brilliantly tonight. Jake Ball has bowled well again and picked up a few of our top order, which wasn't ideal but if we apply ourselves then we'll see how go and see where we are at and hopefully we can get in a position to chase down the runs."