Sam Robson’s first half-century for over two months helped Middlesex set up a tantalising final day in their LV= County Cricket Championship Division One relegation decider against Lancashire at Old Trafford.
The England opener made 75 as Middlesex established a lead of 114 with six second-innings wickets in hand.
Chris Rogers’ side were 202 for four when bad light ended play eight overs early after Lancashire had earlier declared on 302 for eight, Glen Chapple applying the closure immediately once he had secured a third batting bonus point.
Lancashire must win the game to avoid relegation. Any other result will ensure Middlesex’s survival.
The first hour of the morning’s play was as tense as county cricket gets. Lancashire resumed on 259 for six, needing 41 runs off 14 overs without losing three wickets to gain the three-bonus-point advantage they required going into the second half of the match.
Tim Murtagh struck early blows for Middlesex when he had Luke Procter lbw for 42 and Simon Kerrigan lbw for nought. That left Lancashire on 271 for nine, with 9.3 overs left in which to gain that vital bonus point. If another wicket had fallen, the home side would have been relegated.
Both Murtagh and Toby Roland-Jones bowled accurately and well but a edged boundary and a pushed three by number 10 Tom Bailey edged Lancashire closer to their target. A succession of scurried singles followed and seven were still needed off the final over. Astonishingly, Chapple struck Roland-Jones’ first delivery over midwicket for six and pushed the second through gully for three.
The Lancashire skipper then declared with that bonus point secure and his team’s survival hopes still alive.
Chapple ended the innings on a season’s best 45 not out and Bailey was unbeaten on an invaluable 13. Murtagh took three for 69 and Roland-Jones three for 75.
Middlesex openers Rogers and Robson added 30 in 10 overs by lunch although Rogers had been dropped twice, the first a very difficult chance to third slip Ashwell Prince off the fourth ball of the morning, and the second a two-handed diving chance to Karl Brown off Junaid Khan.
In the afternoon session Middlesex added 111 runs in 38 overs but lost three prime wickets to lead by 53 at tea.
Bailey struck the first blow when he bowled Rogers for 21 when the Australian inside-edged a cut on to his stumps.
Robson then added 40 with Dawid Malan and the opener reached a half-century for the first time since July 11 when he got to fifty in the Trent Bridge Test against India. However, Robson was dismissed when a back-foot drive off Kerrigan only found the safe hands off substitute fielder Liam Livingstone at short extra cover.
The out-of-form Joe Denly followed his team-mate to the pavilion for seven 10 overs later when he attempted to leave a ball from Kerrigan but only gloved a catch to Paul Horton at slip.
Lancashire claimed just one wicket in the evening session when Malan edged a vicious delivery from Junaid to Steven Croft at second slip and was dismissed for 39. However Neil Dexter was dropped on nought by Horton off Chapple and he then survived until the close when he was four not out off 53 balls. Eoin Morgan will resume on 41 not out.
Chapple said: “This game has been a case of us keeping our chance alive and it’s been a match of stages for us. At least we’re still in it going into the final day. We’re clinging on and we’re still hopeful going into tomorrow.
“We’re under no illusions that we struggled with the bat in the first innings but we’re looking forward to the last day. Middlesex still have a lot of work to do.”
Middlesex seamer Tim Murtagh said: “I don’t think anybody can feel confident at any stage in this match. Each side has got a foothold and then it has twisted and gone the other way.
“It was good that Eoin and Neil got though the last hour or so without any further loss. We’ll come back tomorrow and see what the morning has in store for us.
“We needed a couple of wickets early this morning but maybe the script was written for Chapple in what may be his final game. We couldn’t do it the easy way so we had to do it the hard way.”