Middlesex 56 (Stewart 6-22) and 22 for 2 require a further 445 runs to beat Kent 241 (Fuller 4-86) and 281 (Stewart 103, Kuhn 57)
If yesterday was Grant Stewart‘s perfect day, today was his nirvana.
Going into this match, Stewart’s highest first-class was a gritty 31 against Sussex. His best effort with the ball was 2 for 52 on debut, in which he removed two Glamorgan seamers in an end-of-season defeat.
Today, as he walked off to a second standing ovation of the day, he was a first-class centurion, with a six-wicket haul to his name. And on the back of it, perhaps a place in this weekend’s Royal London Cup final against Hampshire at Lord’s awaits.
Stewart doesn’t quite see it that way. “I think anyone who’s been playing in our South Group games would feel really hard done by if I slotted in at the last minute,” he said. “Obviously, it’d be unbelievable to play, but I can’t see it. I’ll happily run the drinks, but of course, it’d be great to play if needed.”
Picked despite a recent hamstring niggle and in the absence of Matt Henry and Darren Stevens – who had shared 72 of the Kent attack’s 111 Championship wickets before this fixture – Stewart’s name raised some eyebrows at the toss. “G. Stewart?” asked a puzzled member of the press box. “Who’s he?”
That reporter sure knows now. Stewart’s swashbuckling hundred from No 10, brought up off just 71 balls, was no tail-ender’s slog. Yes, he started ugly – there were some uncouth swipes through mid-wicket to get things going – but by the time Kent’s lead had passed 400, he was playing the strokes of a stylish all-rounder.
As he started to move through the gears, Stewart – who qualifies as a non-overseas player, courtesy of an EU passport via his Italian mother – made Middlesex look bereft of ideas. James Fuller went full and straight; Stewart backed away, and carved him through the covers for four. Ravi Patel went length and just outside off; Stewart impudently lofted him into the Nackingdon Road end sightscreen. At one point, eight Middlesex fielders were on the boundary, waiting for a misjudgment.
It didn’t come. Ivan Thomas, who contributed an unbeaten one of the 100 partnership the pair shared, held firm, with men in and around him. Stewart hit Tim Murtagh – he of 726 first-class wicket – for three boundaries in an over. All of a sudden, a hundred was on.
With all of Kent’s squad out on the dressing room balcony, a hush descended upon the St Lawrence Ground. Stewart tapped his bat twice, and set himself. As Patel ambled in apologetically, he rocked onto the back foot, and calmly split the point and cover fielders. The crowd rose to their feet: Stewart had done in, and in some style.
He fell three balls later; it mattered not. Middlesex needed a herculean 467: a target which even a team of Grant Stewarts might struggle to overhaul.
From the outset, they were in trouble. Max Holden, the highly-regarded opening batsman, edged his second ball from Harry Podmore just short of second slip. Was that the change in their luck, Middlesex wondered? The moment that showed their second innings would be different?
It was not. The next ball, he edged through to Adam Rouse, and departed with bat tucked under arm. Twenty minutes later, Stevie Eskinazi fell to another edge, as Kent’s seamers again managed to get the pink ball talking; again, Podmore was the man to strike, his sharp, short snorter fended to second slip.
Middlesex had hoped that last week’s win at Grace Road would be the turning point in their season. But with 445 runs still to make, and a batting line-up that has struggled throughout this Championship season, it seems that their defeat will be a matter of when, not if.
Earlier in the day, their final-wicket pair added only two to an overnight score of 54-9, as (guess who?) Stewart picked up his sixth victim.
Kent’s second innings was much the same as their first; too many of the top six got themselves in then out, with captain Sam Billings’ decision to leave a Murtagh inswinger that knocked back his off stump the worst of a series of poor shots. The hosts had disappointed, Heino Kuhn’s well-made 57 aside, as they limped to 181 for 9.
That was, at least, until Stewart’s staggering intervention stole the show.