Middlesex 210 (White 76*, Payne 5-31) and 26 for 3 trail Gloucestershire 273 (Bracey 75, Cockbain 51) by 37 runs
There have been times, during England's interminable era of bio-secure bubbling, when you'd have been forgiven for wondering whether James Bracey was a figment of the management's cabin-fevered imagination. Plucked from obscurity to join the 55-man training squad last summer, then stowed away behind closed doors for the best part of a year, was Bracey a MacGuffin of the rest-and-rotation policy? An illusion of options in a squad that isn't exactly in need of yet another wicketkeeper-batter?
For 143 deliveries at Lord's this afternoon - the majority of them coming in a free-wheeling fifth-wicket stand of 91 with Ian Cockbain - and then with an eye-catching grab behind the stumps in the day's closing moments, Bracey set out to prove he's a very real prospect indeed. In spite of the sudden deluge of options at England's disposal this summer, this performance may yet prove to have been a sighter for his potential Test debut on the same ground against New Zealand next month. After all, the selectors' secret is out now. They can't keep him cooped up in an ECB-approved hotel-room for evermore.
"I've just really enjoyed being back out there," Bracey said at the close. "I haven't played a lot of Championship cricket in the past 18 months, so it's been nice to have a period to get into my stride and go to work.
"I've come back feeling a bit more responsible and with a bit more experience to contribute to the team, but it's been a double-edged sword," he added. "You find yourself getting into a groove of netting and practicing, and finding things to work on, so it's nice to have that competitive edge back. It's very different out there to what it's like on the training ground."
Admittedly, Bracey made just 75 - one fewer than Robbie White compiled for Middlesex on the opening day - and the shot that brought about his downfall was limp, as he pulled his second delivery after tea straight to backward square to fling away the chance of his second hundred of the season, not to mention the chance to turn a handy first-innings lead of 63 into a crushing three-figure advantage.
But until that moment, the manner in which he had guided Gloucestershire through the early stirrings of a Middlesex revival was unquestionably classy. At 100 for 4 in the 45th over, with Tim Murtagh and Ethan Bamber leading the line in a typically parsimonious pairing, there had been a danger that the hosts' total of 210 might prove to be competitive after all.
But Bracey, who had stood firm for 20 overs after replacing the nightwatchman Matt Taylor at the hour mark, found in Cockbain a man who was willing to take the calculated risks that Middlesex's own middle-order had found to be beyond them. Together they cashed in on the change bowlers, Martin Andersson and the young spinner Thilan Wallalawita in particular, to rattle along at close to four an over with 17 fours and a six between them.
And by the close, that pair of half-centuries, allied to a feisty cameo of 49 from Ryan Higgins, had been put into proper context by yet another callow batting display from Middlesex. Higgins and David Payne reprised their first-innings dominance to scalp both openers in single figures, before Bracey himself plunged across Kraigg Brathwaite at first slip to extend Peter Handscomb's abject start to his tenure as Middlesex's new captain - he's made 31 runs in five innings now, today's addition to that tally being a solitary boundary at the halfway mark of a tortuous 31-ball stay.
As befits their table-topping status, Gloucestershire will no doubt rue the lapses that denied them an impregnable hold on the contest. Brathwaite's dismissal was particularly culpable. Cruising along in sunglasses for much of a cloudless morning, he had been batting with typically bloodless obduracy until, on 33, he slashed a touch too greedily at a wide one from James Harris to be plucked at second slip by a diving Sam Robson to end a 121-ball stay.
After being punished by Cockbain in particular during a ropey second spell, Andersson put in a feisty late showing to massage his dented figures, as he followed Bracey's post-tea aberration with an excellent outswinger to snag George Hankins' edge for 11. But the best of the rest was Harris, and he had a moment of personal satisfaction when Cockbain too dropped his guard, one delivery after bringing up his fifty, and lost his leg stump to a late dipping inswinger. It was Harris's 500th first-class wicket, due reward for an indomitable career that began as a 16-year-old at Glamorgan and has endured through injury and biomechanical tinkerings for 14 years and counting.
Murtagh returned with the new ball to exchange punches with Higgins, who walloped him for a huge six into the Grandstand before being nailed on the knee-roll one ball later and walking for his plumb lbw, before the quietly impressive Bamber grabbed two in as many overs to dock the tail and walk off the field with 2 for 34 in 22.2 overs of unobtrusive diligence.
But sadly for Middlesex, such quiet achievement proved out of reach as their second innings got underway. Robson got off to a flyer as Higgins strayed onto his legs with each of his first two deliveries, but those freebie fours were as far as his innings would progress. One over later, Higgins adjusted his line to shape that inswinger into his front pad and Robson was gone for 8. Perhaps his fleeting prospect of an England recall had gone with the moment too, after scores of 165 and 95 in his last two matches at Lord's.
Max Holden gifted Payne his sixth wicket of the match with a looping leading edge that the bowler swallowed with a dive to his left, and Middlesex were still 40 runs in arrears when Bracey put his personal seal on the day to give Taylor the captain's head on a platter.
There's bad weather in prospect for the resumption on Saturday, but Middlesex know only too well from their local knowledge of Lord's that is not the good news that sides in their position might once have been praying for. Such is the drainage at this ground that the rain needs only to stop for an instant for play to resume. And if the swing-friendly clouds linger as they are expected to, the gloom in the home dressing room is unlikely to lift in a hurry either.