Essex 68 for 0 (Browne 34*, Cook 29*) trail Nottinghamshire 187 (Clarke 48, Porter 4-75) by 119 runs
In Chelmsford’s increasingly impressive Central Park, you can now cross the River Can by a new bridge that has been erected since Essex won the Championship in 2017, and those who made that crossing for the visit of Nottinghamshire relished a reminder of that success: Jamie Porter running in hungrily, passing the outside edge and taking wickets again.
On such a glorious spring day, it was possible to believe both in the eternal popularity of both town planners and county cricket – and that is a sentence for which the overused word “unique” might not be inappropriate. To add to the joy, the County Championship now has our undivided attention until mid-July (give or take the odd global tournament), although one suspects there is less chance of sorting out the traffic jams on the A12.
Under these blue skies, Nottinghamshire were dispensed with for 187 on a surface offering a good balance between bat and ball (perhaps 260 was par) and Porter claimed 4 for 75, this after managing only two expensive wickets in the first two matches of the season. His plucking-out of Ben Slater and Joe Clarke soon after lunch changed the shape of the day. Essex, by closing on 68 for 0, only trail by 119.
Porter took 75 wickets at 16.82 when Essex won their first title for 25 years. England felt obliged to take a look, picked him in a Test squad or two without granting him a debut and gave him a Lions tour in India. Wisden made him Cricketer of the Year, but even allowing for his impressive consistency you felt they were honouring a valued county performer rather than an England bowler-in-waiting.
Another 58 wickets at 24.63 followed last summer – his fourth successive haul of more than 50 wickets – as Essex made a poor title defence but stole into third place with the help of the Indian batsman Murali Vijay. Porter will have to maintain at least those standards for Essex to challenge this time around.
The seam of the Dukes ball is less pronounced this year, the heavy roller is back, and there are more matches in midsummer: three changes in one which mean the ECB will not be able to draw any worthwhile conclusions but which we can presume mean bowlers like Porter, with a pace not much above 80mph, will have their work cut out to maintain their standards. At 25, he is young enough and resourceful enough to adapt to the challenge.
Conditions on this occasion were more encouraging as the sun drew the moisture from the ground and Porter’s response was admirable. Ben Duckett was picked off lbw in his new-ball spell – Duckett’s third single-figure score in the Championship which might have explained his reluctance to depart. But Chris Nash took four boundaries off Porter in a single over before he fell clipping Sam Cook to square leg.
Slater and Clarke then dug in in an obdurate stand of 80 in 33 which also met Simon Harmer’s offspin with great deliberation and which appeared to have got Nottinghamshire through the worst. Rewards looked unlikely to come easily.
That perception changed with the loss of five wickets for 37 in 18 overs during the afternoon, with Porter at the heart of it. Slater, who had made 20 from 87 balls before lunch, moved dependably on to 45 before Porter moved one away to have him caught at the wicket; Slater is proving himself a solid signing without the big scores that will get him noticed.
Clarke’s drive, to be bowled through the gate for 45, was more fulsome. Porter had been rewarded for a probing spell. Tom Moores followed to him later when an uninhibited blow got no further than cover and, from 155 for 7, the tail was rounded up with a kamikaze moment or two.
Nottinghamshire’s assistant head coach, Paul Franks, felt that their innings increasingly suffered from a hangover from their Royal London Cup campaign which only ended on Sunday with a semi-final defeat against Somerset at Trent Bridge.
“It was a really tough day on a pitch which we read as being pretty good for batting,” he said. “We have seen the ball do a lot and they bowled really well on it and put us under some pressure. We didn’t handle that pressure well at certain times.
“There was a lot of loose stuff, a lot of stuff that comes off the back of a one-day competition which the lads threw themselves into wholeheartedly over the past few weeks and had 24 hours to turn it around.”
Essex’s reply had extra interest in the duel between Stuart Broad and Alastair Cook. Cook might no longer be England captain, but he is a “Sir” these days, and is held in such high regard in High Places that it is surprising “Alastair” was not somehow fitted in to the new Prince’s name. His wicket still carries a certain cachet. Broad also had a former team-mate to subdue, and an approaching Ashes series to bear in mind. Cook stood firm; Broad would have to try again on the morrow.