Bopara props up Essex
Essex 144 and 168 for 4 v Leicestershire 202
When Ravi Bopara was overlooked for the England team ahead of the first Test of the summer, it precipitated a sharp decline in his contributions for Essex. Some said it was disappointment; others said that he lacked the stomach for the fight at this level. Either way, with younger men - the likes of Taylor and Stokes - vying for England selection, it seems quite possible that Bopara will never add to those ten Test caps.
On the evidence of this performance, that would be a shame. And a waste. Garon Park may be many miles - both geographically and figuratively - from the glamour and intensity of the international arena but, with his team under pressure and on a pitch that remains helpful to bowlers of all types, Bopara responded with a deeply impressive innings.
True, the Leicestershire attack - worthy though it is - could not claim to be Test class. But this isn't a Test pitch, either, and Bopara, for the second time in the match, has demonstrated a strong temperament and technique to withstand everything that has been thrown at him on a surface where no-one has flourished. He's also shown discipline, patience and and, most importantly, earned his side a chance to win a game that had seemed to be sliding inexorably the way of their opponents.
Beginning their second innings with a deficit of 58 runs, Essex had lost two men even before achieving parity. A third-wicket stand of 104 - easily the highest of the match - has given them hope, however, and suggests that Bopara, captaining Essex for the first time in the Championship, may be the sort of character who thrives on responsibility. It was, tellingly, his highest score in his last ten first-class innings.
There were few opportunities to demonstrate that easy timing that tends to enlighten any Bopara innings. Instead, he showed the virtues of placement, watchfulness and excellent judgement of which balls to play and which to leave. It was, in short, a mature performance.
It wasn't all about Bopara, though. Billy Godleman also impressed in compiling a patient 77. Watchful initially, Godleman developed from a period of quiet accumulation and finally unveiled a couple of pleasing drives and, when Henderson dropped short, pulled him over mid wicket for six. To put his contribution in perspective, his was the highest score on this ground in the last nine first-class innings stretching back to 2009.
Not all the Essex players showed such dedication to the cause. No-one in the English game can claim to have more talent than Owais Shah. Not Bell, not Pietersen and not Bopara. But talent is just one of the ingredients required for success and Shah doesn't always show he has the requisite application.
Here, after unveiling an outrageously good paddle for four off Henderson, he skipped down the wicket, attempted to play against the spin and was stumped. It would, I suppose, have looked good had he connected but, in the circumstances, it was simply reckless. Indeed, at such moments, it's not hard to see why Middlesex and the England selectors lost patience with him.
Earlier 22-year-old legspinner Tom Craddock delivered a spell of 4 for 14 to wrap-up the Leicestershire first innings. Craddock is a talented cricketer who may well have a bright future in the game but, in truth, he was a bit flattered by those figures. Nathan Buck was caught at silly point after he hit a full toss onto his boot, while Henderson dragged a long hop to mid wicket.
A better test of Craddock's will surely come in the fourth innings of this game. As Essex's only specialist spinner, he'll be expected to play a significant role in winning his side the game. It's a large responsibility for a fellow playing just his fourth first-class game.
Leicestershire may come to rue not making more of their opportunity to establish a first innings lead. While batting was never easy, it was as if they couldn't decide which method would serve them best: all out attack or dogged defence. In the end, they did a bit of both and a lot of neither.
Crucially, James Taylor fell early. Unable to build on his reprieves the previous night, Taylor was caught at short leg as he squeezed one into the air off bat and pad. Though Wayne White and Josh Cobb made starts, they were both undone by a bit of seam movement from Essex's band of medium-pacers, before Tom New, playing-on and Jigar Naik, playing down the wrong line, were dismissed by good Craddock deliveries.
Leicestershire are not out of this game, however. The wicket of Godleman, chipping to mid on and Jaik Mickleburgh, bowled by the last delivery of the day from the deserving Nadeem Malik, has offered them hope and, if they can dismiss Bopara early on day three, they may yet face a chase of little more than 150.