Derbyshire 265 (Viljoen 60*, Harris 4-68) and 333 for 3 dec (Reece 157*, Slater 99) beat Middlesex 157 (Olivier 4-26) and 340 (Harris 64*, Helm 52, Olivier 4-82) by 101 runs
At the 24th time of asking Derbyshire have finally won a Championship match at home. When the run was broken, it came in the most unlikely circumstances: Middlesex, the big boys from the smoke, champions in 2016 and the most unlikely relegation victims a year later, vanquished by 101 runs.
Derbyshire have got a monkey off their backs, although as it was St George’s Day, it should be conceded that as achievements go that is not quite as exciting as slaying a dragon.
When release came at 5.12pm, with 14 overs to spare, a modest crowd let out a brief cheer then got up and went home looking mightily relieved. Middlesex’s last seven wickets had not been relinquished readily.
That was particularly true of the ninth-wicket pair of James Harris and Tom Helm who added 106 in 31 overs, taking the game deep into the final session, Helm registering a maiden first-class fifty and Harris, who Middlesex believe can develop into a fully-fledged allrounder, providing evidence for the cause with an unbeaten 62.
Although 24 matches might be a long time, Derbyshire have endured worse. Dave Houghton was their coach for the longest unsuccessful home Championship run of all, at the turn of the century, and as fate often has it, he was looking on again in his current role as Middlesex’s batting coach.
Then there is always the comparison with Derby County FC. From September 2007, the football club embarked upon a run of 38 league games without a win. During that run they were relegated from the Premier League with a record low number of points and a bookmaker paid out on them being relegated after only six matches.
Derbyshire have not remotely reached those subterranean standards. Their home ground has improved markedly in recent seasons, a pleasure to visit, so any sense of better times ahead should be celebrated. And last season they reached the quarter-finals of the NatWest Blast.
If they have not yet had cause to move the trophy cabinet out of the Boardroom, where pride of place is given to the 1936 Championship-winning side, at least they have had cause to remember where it is.
All in all, they are inured to lean spells in these parts and regard them as good for the soul – something akin to a cricketing diet: you feel all the better when you get the chance to gorge on something tasty. Not many counties have been asked by a senior executive at the ECB: “Why do you bother?” How many reasons did he want? And failure does give the members something to grumble about at the AGM.
But things are rarely as bad as they sound. Nearly all bleak runs carry memories of great finishes, of entertainment provided, of chances spurned. Since Derbyshire’s previous home win, against Leicestershire in September 2014, three missed opportunities stand out.
Leicestershire might have been beaten at the end of 2015 but when Derbyshire’s eighth wicket fell, with 10 still needed off five balls, the coach at the time, Graeme Welch, insisted that they blocked out because he could not countenance losing to Leicestershire twice in the same season. If only he had known what was to befall them.
The following season, they were well placed against Gloucestershire only for the final day to be washed out. And in 2017 most regrets centre around the visit of Northamptonshire when some fine smiting by Richard Levi, who made 99 from 79 balls, enabled their opponents to chase down 326 with three wickets and a ball to spare.
Derbyshire had declared on the third evening, setting Middlesex 442 for victory, the highest chase achieved against them in their history. The loss of three wickets by the close had emphasised that the target was purely notional and two wickets fell early on the fourth morning – the nightwatchman, Ollie Rayner, slickly caught to his left at first slip by Wayne Madsen and Max Holden nibbling at a ball from Hardus Viljoen that was angled across him.
Derbyshire’s pace bowling stocks are not deep, so it is hard not to watch Viljoen, Duanne Olivier and Ravi Rampaul with a sense of trepidation that they might come to grief at any moment. As lunch approached, Derbyshire were forced to look to more part-time practitioners and it paid better dividends than they would have dared to hope as Paul Stirling, on 42, gave Luis Reece a return catch and Simpson was lbw to Wayne Madsen’s offspin in the final over of the session.
Seven down at lunch was a comfortable place to be. Two injured Middlesex seamers, Harris and Toby Roland-Jones, the extent of their injuries not yet known, then resisted until mid-afternoon at which point Roland-Jones’ enterprising resistance was broken by the legspin of Matt Critchley.
But the second new ball brought nothing, apart from some playing and missing at wide balls and Derbyshire entered tea still needing two wickets. It seemed to be taking an age. To think that Bob Taylor, one of Derbyshire’s most famous sons, once stood behind the timbers long enough to take 2,069 dismissals: by now two seemed taxing enough.
At tea, the Derbyshire photographer, historian and former committee member David Griffin was giving Jigar Naik a mention. “I have nightmares about it still,” he said. Nine years ago, Derbyshire had Leicestershire seven down, and more than 200 behind, entering the final day at Grace Road. They shook hands on a draw that evening as Naik celebrated what remains as his only first-class century.
Helm’s previous first-class best was 28, but he made untroubled progress, striking Critchley’s legspin for six shortly before reaching his maiden first-class fifty. He fell lbw soon afterwards, struck on the back leg by the same bowler.
Fourteen overs were left when Tim Murtagh, no mug at No. 11 but another Middlesex seamer clearly struggling with injury, was bowled by Olivier as he failed to get in line – the South African’s eighth in the match. Derbyshire had their home win after 1306 days, manufactured by three bowlers with Test credentials;, for Middlesex, it was a reminder that even though they are overwhelmingly fancied to return to Division One at the first time of asking, nothing comes automatically. They know that and they will prosper.