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Middlesex 265 and 68 for 2 trail Lancashire 427 (Jones 122, Vilas 68) by 94 runs

Saturday morning in London: fat papers thumping on to doormats; the 319 taking its time getting to Sloane Square; Van Goghs at the Tate; Renaissance nudes at the Royal Academy; Soho’s pubs opening early and the regulars meeting for convivial loneliness; pre-season practice for clubs in the Surrey Championship; Luton at Charlton and Wrexham at Barnet; Oxted Villa at Streatham Rovers, Northampton at Harlequins and Essex at Surrey. And Rob Jones at Lord’s, hoping to secure his place in Lancashire’s side. This, too, is cricket in England.

Just after 3.30pm Jones reached the century which will help him achieve his goal. He cut Steven Finn to the wide third-man boundary and, just as when he scored his maiden hundred against the same opponents in 2016, he went on a merry jig full of joyful leaps and fist pumps One could understand his euphoria. Jones has had to wait for his opportunities at Lancashire and showers here meant he had to begin his innings on a couple more occasions than he might have expected.

None of it seemed to trouble him and neither was he too bothered when rattled on the helmet by James Harris after lunch. He eventually became one of five batsmen dismissed after tea when the admirable Tim Murtagh got a leg-before decision from Billy Taylor, but by the time Harris bowled Graham Onions to end the innings Lancashire had a meaty 162-run advantage on first innings.

That lead had not been reduced at all when Nick Gubbins blamelessly nicked James Anderson’s fifth ball of the innings to Glenn Maxwell at second slip. Yet that wicket was followed by such a secure 68-run stand between Sam Robson and Stevie Eskinazi that it seemed Middlesex would be going into the final day with nine wickets in hand. Then Eskinazi played across a straight ball from Onions five minutes before the close and that reverse bruised the home side’s hopes. No doubt someone will say it is going to be a big first hour in the morning. But if the first hour is big, the second will be enormous and the third may well disrupt space-time altogether.

Whatever the result, Lancashire had earned their earlier advantage in a flinty manner that bodes well for them this season. The morning session, for example, had been a grim affair: only 13 overs were possible between the showers and the lingering images are of Dane Vilas and Jones defending with the resolution of Protestant pastors before the Inquisition. Both Murtagh and Finn found a righteous length and Jones managed just three runs off 36 balls before the first interruption.

Two fours off Harris, the second a sweet thing through mid-off, may have relaxed him a trifle but conditions were no easier for Middlesex. Their players all wore thick sweaters and between balls they stood with their hands dug deep in their armpits. On the scoreboard Haseeb Hameed’s 117 shone out against Last Man, a reminder of Friday afternoon, when the ground was thronged and our talk was filled with marvellous praise.

We managed only 33 balls in the afternoon session before the rain returned. There was time for a stroll in St John’s Wood: Panzer’s deli selling kumquats, yellow dates and maracuya; the pavements rinsed as though after pain; the 113 rumbling past Lord’s on its way to Oxford Circus; young-leafed poplars in Cochrane Street; couples dawdling over a late lunch in Fego’s, their gestures suggesting possibilities.

The cricket resumed just before 3pm and the rest of the day was played in bright sunlight. As if reassured by the prospect of prolonged time at the crease, the batsmen played with more assurance. Vilas reached his fifty with a tucked single off Toby Roland-Jones and one fancies it will be the first of many he will score this summer. Then Jones twice pulled Harris savagely to the backward square boundary, as if taking revenge for that blow on the helmet. Those fours took him into the nineties and he soon reached his second first-class century. It was a noble effort.

Ten minutes before tea, though, Vilas was leg before when attempting to sweep Malan. That ended his 143-run stand with Jones and it was also the prelude to a further tumble on the resumption. In all, Lancashire lost their last six wickets for 53 runs in 16 overs. One of those dismissed was Alex Davies, who was fit enough to bat but not to field after injuring his thumb on the first morning

It is late now. The newspapers have been reduced to their constituent parts and lie around suburban lounges, their crosswords half-completed. From the pubs around Lord’s one hears the clink of glasses and the hum of talk on this cool spring evening. Elsewhere London’s theatres are preparing for their evening performances: The Lion King, The Book of Mormon, Top Girls. A thousand restaurants have opened their doors. And somewhere in this sleepless metropolis Middlesex and Lancashire’s cricketers are resting before the final act of this contested drama between two teams whose ambitions this summer are unapologetically grand.

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