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Mark Pennell at Whitgift School
May 18, 2011
Essex 318 for 6 v Surrey
The press marquee at Whitgift School's leafy ground in Croydon has rarely been so busy, particularly for an County Championship Division Two encounter played out in front of a modest opening day crowd of 800.
There was a clamour for seats, team news and wi-fi access at the start of a cloudy day as no fewer than three tabloid newspaper correspondents and a couple of broadsheet deputies enjoyed a rare look at four-day cricket. In reality, they were all here on 'England watch'.
With Kevin Pietersen, now fully recovered from his close-season hernia surgery, making his season's Championship bow for hosts alongside fit-again paceman and international team-mate, Chris Tremlett, it was hard to know whether the national press corps wanted to report on pre-Test successes or write about injury breakdowns.
For added spice, England's opening batsman Alastair Cook was lining up in opposition and making his sixth successive championship start for Essex in a quest for early-season form ahead of the three-match series against the Sri Lankans.
Lap-top keyboards were soon chattering when, after electing to bowl first, Surrey made an early breakthrough through Tremlett. Extracting good pace and bounce with the new ball from the Chapel End, he nipped one back off the seam in his third over of the day to graze Jaik Mickleburgh's front pad and fell the right-hander's off stump.
Test prospect Stuart Meaker should have dismissed Mark Pettini for 5, only to see deposed England keeper Steven Davies drop a regulation chance behind the stumps with the total on 50. Meaker changed ends and got his man 10 overs later however, when Pettini's involuntary push at a leg-cutter took a thick edge through to second slip where Rory Hamilton-Brown pocketed a sharp chance near his left hip to make it 88 for 2.
Having played and missed on a handful of occasions, Cook reached an 89- ball half-century just before lunch with seven authentic and crisp boundaries, but he went soon after the resumption for 63. A leaden-footed push at a lifting in-ducker from Tremlett took the inside edge and this time Davies made no mistake.
Normal service was resumed thereafter as, with Cook gone and Tremlett out of the attack, the bread and butter county pros went about their work. Matt Walker, the burly yet gifted left-hander from Kent, dug in with rookie and slightly built right-hander, Adam Wheater, to add 131 during an enterprising fourth-wicket stand that lasted 31.2 overs either side of tea.
In the process, Walker went past 12,000-runs for a first-class career that has generally failed to live up to the promise of its England Under-19 beginnings. In only his third Championship start Wheater clubbed sixes off Tremlett and Gareth Batty, then lent back and opened the face to a short one from Yasir Arafat that sailed over the third man ropes on his way to a 71-ball 50. It was his maiden half-century for Essex.
Walker joined him after 85 balls at the crease, but his was a more robust innings, full of trademark cuts and glides through backward point with six fours in his 50.
After a swashbuckling 64, Wheater's only half-hearted shot of the day sailed meekly into the hands of mid-on soon after tea then, to the third delivery with the second new ball, Walker aimed a push drive at a full-length one from Yasir Arafat and only succeeded in dragging it onto the base of off stump. Six overs from the close James Foster went leg-before for 30 to a Stuart Meaker full-toss, but it remained advantage Essex.
"We would have bowled first," said Essex batting coach Graham Gooch at the start of the day: "But it was a toss you didn't mind losing." How right he was.
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