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It's funny how things work out. In June 2008 at Old Trafford, Manchester, Ollie Rayner played a Championship match for Sussex against Lancashire. The captain of the opposition was Stuart Law, Lancashire's Australian overseas player, who was still churning out runs for fun. For a young off-spinner just making his way in the county game, there weren't many tougher challenges at that time than bowling to Law, even if he was coming to the end of his playing career.
"I didn't get him out but I was close," Rayner says now with a rueful smile. "He swept me, top edged it straight up above Matt Prior behind the stumps. Chris Adams called it from first slip but didn't get there, totally missed it. Stuey was on about 150 at the time so it's all relative. But I should have had him."
Law's appointment as Middlesex head coach in September means the two will be sharing a dressing room this season rather than competing against each other and had Adams taken that catch, you can imagine Rayner might, at some point, have subtly dropped it into conversation with his new coach. Instead, bragging rights are firmly with the Australian, who finished that innings 158 not out. Rayner has kept quiet.
Law's arrival at the club has been the only major personnel change during a winter that has otherwise been about trying to improve what Middlesex have already got. Aside from the signings of AB de Villiers and Mujeeb ur Rahman for the T20 Blast, nobody else has yet arrived to bolster the squad. A batsman for the second half of the one-day tournament is expected but the club are currently not interested in signing an overseas player for the Championship. They believe in what they have.
Yet with the appointment of Law and former Hampshire wicket-keeper Nic Pothas as his deputy, there is a new, fresh vibe at Lord's after a tough couple of years following Middlesex's brilliant Championship win in 2016. "NIc Pothas had so many cones out for his first training session," says Rayner. "I thought "Oh my God". I hadn't brought my springier spaniel to run round them. But he's been brilliant and the energy they've both brought in together has been great.
"A bit of a fresh perspective of things is good for everyone - young and old. It gives everyone a fresh outlook on life and everyone is competing for spots. Everyone is starting again and everyone has a clean sheet."
It's been a rough couple of years for Middlesex after the high of the Championship win. The following season they were relegated to Division Two and last season failed to get promoted straight back up, finishing fourth. "A lot of people thought we were a sure-fire bet to go straight back up," Rayner says. "But it's not quite as clear cut as that. There were four, five, six very good teams in Division Two all battling for two spots last year.
"This year, there's three [promotion] spots and that's probably the pressure now. If you don't do it this year... this is the year to do it."
Injuries certainly played a part in Middlesex's failure to do better in the second tier with Steven Finn and Toby Roland-Jones out for large swathes of the season. The batsmen too failed to fire - nobody averaged more than 36 - and there were a couple of close games which could have gone either way but ended in defeat. The players, many of whom had been successful in the top flight, also had to adjust to a different type of game in the second division.
"It's a hard one to say without sounding arrogant but I think we are better suited to the way cricket has been played in Division One because it's a bit more of a waiting game," says Rayner. "I don't think anyone would slate me for saying the pitches are a little bit better so you have to play that game of attrition. Whereas in Division Two, there's a bit more variety in teams and pitches that you play on.
"We have got a new groundsman this year. We certainly want our pitches to be slightly different than they have in the past. A more even contest. They became a bit too seamer-friendly last year. We want good pitches that if we get nicks they carry and if you knuckle down you score runs."
Middlesex certainly have the bowling attack to do damage on any surface. Roland-Jones and Finn are both fit again and so is highly rated quick Tom Helm. Evergreen Tim Murtagh continues to do his thing while the likes of Dawid Malan, Nick Gubbins and, for the early part of the season at least, Eoin Morgan present a classy batting line up. On paper, it is a strong red-ball squad. "If we can get runs on the board, with our seam attack, we've got a great chance," Rayner says.
Rayner took 51 wickets at 23 and caught flies at slip during the Championship winning season, Middlesex's first title since 1993. He was a mainstay of a bowling attack including Murtagh and Roland-Jones who played nearly every match and combined for almost 150 wickets but, like the side more generally, Rayner has found things tougher since then.
A knee injury has been a major contributing factor, an issue he tried to deal with during 2017 with a series of injections. Those worked to an extent that he could get on the park but the injury still held him back - "I didn't cope particularly well with it" - and he eventually needed an operation last winter. The after-effects still lingered last term where he averaged more than 40 with the ball.
"I don't feel I did that badly last year but I just didn't bowl that much which was strange given it was the driest summer for years," he says. "I think I played in nine games for Middlesex and only bowled in five or something. The pitches didn't really suit me and I lost a bit of confidence, the knee wasn't great and I never really got going."
Halfway through the season, he went out on loan to Hampshire for two matches with Ravi Patel preferred as Middlesex's Championship spinner. It could have been seen as a fall from grace but Rayner says it was a "brilliant" experience and crucially, it was a decision which benefitted all parties. "I know a lot of the guys there [at Hampshire] and this is no slight on Middlesex but I was getting a little bit frustrated here.
"I was a bit in and out. And just to have a little more of a fresh perspective is good. As sad as it sounds, when you go into a new environment you get the arm round the shoulder treatment, they want you to feel wanted and it's nice to have that, even at 33."
There was never much chance of Rayner leaving the club and he remains the number one spinner this year after Patel's release at the end of the season. Rayner is fully fit and energised by the major role Law wants him to play. His bowling will look after itself, he says, but after a few lean years, Law wants him to focus on getting his batting back to where it was at the start of his career - he has two first-class hundreds - to allow the team to play an extra bowler. There's also the likelihood of some white-ball game-time after missing out for much of the last two seasons to Patel.
Those extra opportunities will be welcome. In the past, Rayner has been vocal about the plight of English spinners with Championship matches pushed to the extremes of the summer, played in conditions which usually favour the quicker men to the detriment of his ilk. Another consequence has been that for those bowlers who don't play white-ball cricket, as he hasn't of late, there have been vast swathes of the season without much first team bowling. Second eleven stuff just isn't the same.
This season, there will at least be more Championship games in the height of summer which should bring the spinners into the game and spread their workload out but Rayner's general gripe remains that spinners in England still need more regular first-team overs throughout the season in any format they can get them.
"Bowling in any formats helps. It gives spinners a body of work behind them, tangible results on paper. Even if I bowl ten overs for 2 for 60 in a one-day game, I haven't blown things up, but I've done a job, contributed. That will give me confidence for next time I bowl. Bowling doesn't change that much regardless of format, my action doesn't change.
"It's tough. Sometimes in the past, you wouldn't bowl much and then get a turner and be expected to get a nine-for when you've hardly bowled. When you have had a few overs, all you've been doing is trying to take cover, bowl at the top of off stump, not getting off line because you don't want to get cut or clipped. You need that rhythm to be able to make an impact.
"We'd need a whole other day to cover off all the stuff I believe on this," he jokes.
He could soon find himself getting some overs in for Germany. Rayner's father was in the army and he was born in Walsrode, in Lower Saxony, which makes him eligible for the national team. He travelled to Germany earlier this year to train with the squad and, having more or less given up on an England call now, playing for the German national team in their vital World Cup qualifying matches this summer isn't out of the question.
For now, though any international ambitions can wait. Rayner is about to become a Dad for the first time. "It's daunting and exciting but definitely more exciting," he adds. "I'm looking forward to the away trips with Middlesex. Being a cricketer is good in that respect, I might actually get some sleep then unlike other Dads."
It really is a time of new beginnings.
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