THIS game might only be at its halfway stage, but Gloucestershire already face a task of Himalayan proportions if they are to prevent LV= County Championship Division Two leaders Northants registering an inside-the-distance victory at Bristol.
Enjoying the best of the batting conditions and further aided and abetted by opponents who struggled to adhere to the tenets of line and length on a consistent basis, Northants posted 404 to establish a significant first-innings lead of 212 on the second day.
Alex Wakely, James Middlebrook and Steven Crook all passed 50 as Gloucestershire’s inadequate first innings total of 192 was put well and truly into perspective.
Unfortunately for Gloucestershire, there was still sufficient movement off the pitch to make batting problematic when they were asked to negotiate 15 overs in the early-evening gloom.
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Just as they had on the first day, the visitors made good use of the new ball, removing Michael Klinger as Gloucestershire reached the close on 34-1, still 178 behind with two days remaining and no sign of any rain to assist their cause.
Gloucestershire’s best hope of extricating themselves from a tricky situation arguably rested with their captain, but Klinger faced just nine balls before returning to the pavilion, brilliantly caught at the wicket by a tumbling David Murphy off the bowling of Australian Trent Copeland. It was no more than the New South Wales paceman deserved after bowling superbly on the opening day without reward.
Chris Dent and Dan Housego served up admirable defiance in gloomy conditions and more of the same will be required when Gloucestershire resume their second innings on a pitch showing signs of uneven bounce.
Wakely earlier missed out on what would have been his first hundred in nearly three years, falling lbw to Will Gidman for 88. Having faced 165 balls and shared in stands of 74 and 78 with Rob Newton and Andrew Hall for the fourth and fifth wickets respectively, the 24-year-old played back and across to a ball that kept low and was pinned inside his crease.
His frustration was understandable. Since he last raised three figures against Middlesex at Lord’s in June 2010, Wakely has passed 50 on 11 occasions without converting any of them into hundreds.
Will Gidman had Hall lbw and David Murphy and David Willey both succumbed in the same David Payne over as Gloucestershire reduced the visitors to 283-8.
But that was the cue for Middlebrook to pick up the cudgels and his forthright innings of 62, made from 97 balls and studded with nine fours, was the last thing the home side needed at that stage of the proceedings.
As they proved when the tail wagged furiously in earlier games against Essex and Glamorgan this season, Northants bat all the way down and their last two wickets realised a further 121 runs to leave weary Gloucestershire players on the ropes.
The ninth-wicket partnership between Crook and Middlebrook was worth 75 when the latter finally edged a catch behind to provide Jack Taylor with his only success.
Gloucestershire endured further pain at the hands of Crook and Copeland, who added 44 for the last wicket. Arguably one of the best number elevens on the county circuit this year, Copeland boasts a first-class hundred for New South Wales and announced himself by hammering a quickfire half century against Essex at Northampton last week.
He offered Crook the support he needed to register a second successive half-century, the former Middlesex man’s eighth boundary not only bringing up his 50, but also signalling a fifth batting bonus point for the visitors.