Grounded, rounded champions hungry for more
"They're not really that kind of group," says Angus Fraser, Middlesex's director of cricket. He is talking about the club's first title defence, and whether the players are the sorts to become too big for their boots. "If they did… they'd get a kick, a reminder that lots of sides have burnt brightly briefly," he says. "I saw that as a journalist, say, with England in 2005. There was a long development culminating in an amazing win, and then suddenly everyone stopped giving the same way. We won't be allowing that to happen here."
Middlesex spent their extraordinary summer of 2016 - a far cry from the mess of 2008, when Fraser took over - talking about "the Middlesex DNA", the identity that defined their work; for the defence, Fraser's catchphrase is "humble and hungry".
"We've spoken about this a lot," Nick Gubbins, the opening batsman, says. "Now we have to put it into action. I've noticed a few flash new cars in the car park since we won the title. Does that count as humble and hungry?!"
Middlesex are a peculiar, unique county - they are debt-free but do not own their ground, and are likely to be hit hard by the new T20 competition (they have now come out against the ECB proposals), which would see Lord's requisitioned while they play at outgrounds. A financial loss in 2015 became a profit in 2016 and the title win has been a shot in the arm, leading to a busy winter for Rob Lynch's commercial team: a rebrand, an upgrade of kit supplier (Nike stepped in when MKK went bust), and a raft of new sponsors, including Etihad as airline partner.
On the field, continuity is the watchword. A fast bowler (although not Mitchell McClenaghan, as in recent seasons) will join Brendon McCullum in the overseas ranks for T20, while James Franklin continues as four-day captain. There has been one addition to the coaching team, with Daniel Vettori in as a T20 specialist; McCullum will be captain for the nine games he plays to best exploit the pair's long-standing working relationship.
Despite Gubbins' jokes, there is a clarity of ambition and identity, led by Fraser, and a steely determination to go back to back. It's the same resolve seen in the famous wins at Taunton, Scarborough and, of course, Lord's last year, as well as in Abu Dhabi in March, when John Simpson, county cricket's patron saint of squeaky-bum finishes, turned on the style again.
"The approach is very 'Gus-like'," Gubbins says. What he means is uncomplicated and unflashy. He remembers being in the academy and being invited into the home dressing room at Lord's, where the waiting Fraser "explained what we were getting involved in". Gubbins was also asked to pack (in good humour) then-captain Chris Rogers' bag on his first day with the big boys. Gubbins, who at 23 and following a 1400-run season is not such a kid any more, says: "The senior players mould the rest of the squad. And when the senior players are guys like Ollie Rayner, Tim Murtagh and Toby Roland-Jones, you're going to be called out if you're not pulling your weight or are not being a good bloke to play with."
Stevie Eskinazi, who arrived in 2013 as a total unknown from Perth on a recommendation from the former England batsman Chris Smith, agrees: "As a side, we were towards the start of the journey. It was immediately clear what Gus' team was all about. Work hard, nose down, be a good bloke, perform and you'll fit in well. Since then that has just grown. There really is total buy-in to the team's ethos. And the guys who haven't have been swept away."
Eskinazi reckons the second team is a vital cog in the Middlesex wheel. After making plenty of runs in the twos, his chance came against Yorkshire at the end of the 2015 season, when, batting at No. 5, he found himself in at the end of the game's first over, with three wickets already to Ryan Sidebottom's name. He waited until 2016 for another chance, but all that thumb-twiddling was worth it, as his next two games brought centuries.
"We must be one of the only clubs that if we fielded a full side then professionals would miss out on the second team," he says. "We have 26 on the staff and that creates an environment where you're always being challenged. Everyone's gunning for your spot."
He cites the example of Ryan Higgins, who is yet to play a first-class match, but "scored 140 on a green top against Durham with [Chris] Rushworth and [Graham] Onions" in a warm-up at Merchant Taylor's earlier this month. "That guy is more than ready to thrive in Division One," Eskinazi says, "and he's not getting a look in. What a great problem to have."
Why, then, are players' feet not getting itchy? At Middlesex, as has been seen with James Harris, Harry Podmore and Max Holden this season (and possibly, so he hopes, Higgins soon) they seek a loan, to get miles in their legs and return to push for a place at home, not a permanent move away. Harris and Podmore are bowlers who would make most county attacks; they do not want to leave the club for good, but appreciate they are behind Steven Finn, Roland-Jones, Murtagh and the fit-again Tom Helm in the pecking order, while England Lions' James Fuller is also loitering. Middlesex, it seems, are hell-bent on proving there is no such thing as too much bowling depth.
This is where the other side of Middlesex's strategy comes in. They want to win trophies - and the appointment of Vettori testifies that Championship success is not their only focus (Richards Scott and Johnson, and Dave Houghton, are outstanding coaches but played nine top-level T20s between them) - but, as Fraser puts it, "we want to produce the best young people too".
Richard Goatley, the chief executive, describes their outlook in different, but similar, terms. "We want to be the best employers in cricket," he says. "If we can make them more rounded people, we will get benefits on the field. It's also about setting them up for life after cricket, helping them become secure."
The winter saw a vast step forward in this regard. In January, ten players enrolled in a business and sports management degree at Hertfordshire University, joint-funded by Middlesex and the PCA, with a small input (around £400 per annum) from the cricketers themselves.
It is distance learning, but close enough for them to pop up to the campus, and it is tailored to the players' needs; some, like Gubbins, already have a degree, while Eskinazi and Fuller have been able to carry over credits from previous uncompleted degrees; others, like Harris, are experiencing higher education for the first time. They are one module in (they hope to tick another off this summer) and in all, it should take four to five years to complete. "The degree is solely for professional sportspeople," Eskinazi says, "so they get how and when we are busy. First month of the season or on tour? We aren't getting much done. There are plenty of extensions flying around…"
Fraser's own experience helped mould this strategy. "I've been extremely fortunate," he says. "I retired as a cricketer because I was offered the job at the Independent. Then this position became available and I was lucky enough to get that too. I'm one of the lucky few. It's not going to be like that for everyone, and you have to make sure they are as well-armed as possible so that when their careers end they can make a decent fist of life.
"Cricket is a wonderful sport to play, but there are also some unpleasant statistics that follow the game as far as post-cricket lives go. You live in a little box, like a family, you're well looked after, and then - bang - you're out in the big wide world and it's no longer there, you're middle-aged trying to fend for yourself and you're not financially secure. You want to lead a similar lifestyle but you're not earning enough money."
Harris, who completed A-Levels simply because he promised his parents he would, but did not go to university as he was already playing for Glamorgan, admits that "like a lot of the boys, I have no idea what I want to do after cricket. Hopefully you play into your mid-30s and then you have half your working life left." The club also arranges sponsor days - when players mingle with sponsors - which he says are particularly well run and helpful. "There are some nice gifts, but it's not just a jolly and a freebie for us. It's all building relationships for the future and helping our lives across the board."
The man pulling the strings is Ed Griffiths, an administrator with more than two decades' experience. In 1995, he was the young chief executive of the South African Rugby Union when the Rainbow Nation was united and the Springboks won a home World Cup shortly after readmission. More recently he spent seven years as CEO of Saracens, a period in the club's history in which they moved to their own stadium and established themselves as a dominant force in European rugby. Between times he was involved in his native South Africa's successful bid to host the football World Cup. He is a former journalist and broadcaster too.
Griffiths, who became involved with Middlesex following a chance meeting with Goatley last March, is a fascinating figure, operating in the shadows. Austere, uncompromising and shy of speaking on the record, he has quickly become the players' counsel; a familiar sight during the Champion County match was of him ambling laps of the boundary with individual players, chewing the fat and clutching his notebook.
"Ed's got a load of us actually getting on with things we've always wanted to do away from the game," Harris says. "I'd always planned to study, but Ed's just come straight in and facilitated it." Gubbins' experience was similar: "In my free time I play a lot of Fifa and a lot of golf. Ed gently suggested that I might want to make what I do a little more worthwhile. Cricket, cricket, cricket can get quite on top of you."
Griffiths is the 11th member of the students' WhatsApp group "The Ten Degrees" and arrived with a strong record for such initiatives at Saracens but believes the scale of this - ten professional sportspeople studying together, facilitated by the club - is unprecedented. In rugby, of course, the chance of an instant career-ending injury, and thus the need for more than one string to the bow, is greater, but as Fraser says, "there's a performance side to this too. It's important for them to have interests away from the game. Looking after cricketers does not just mean paying them right."
The hope, too, is that studying might foster a bit of competitive spirit in the group (some are already lagging behind, one player is quick to point out) and Harris paints a rather funny picture: "You never know, if it's pouring it down one day, hopefully the guys might get their laptops out and tap away at an assignment rather than just reading the paper or doing a crossword, wasting that time…"
Middlesex, for now, are leading the way on and off the field, but as Fraser says of the first team, there won't be any resting on laurels yet. "We're pushing a car up a hill," Goatley says. "We have pushed it pretty hard and it's going pretty well but if we stop, it'll start slipping down… Sport has a funny way of kicking you where it hurts just when you think you've made it." Humble and hungry, it seems, is a pretty good fit.
Will Macpherson writes on cricket for the Guardian, ESPNcricinfo and All Out Cricket. @willis_macp