Bopara and Masters sink Leicestershire
Essex 144 and 372 beat Leicestershire 202 and 34
It is fashionable for those who rarely bother to attend such fixtures to suggest that the quality and entertainment offered by Division Two cricket is of little value.
But, in the unlikely setting of Garon Park in Southend, a hardy bunch of spectators were treated to outstanding performances by two fine cricketers, which underlines the counter-view: that quality and skill continue to run deep into the county game. This was an unforgettable day's cricket.
Perhaps the most eye-catching performance came from David Masters. The 33-year-old seamer, a journeyman pro if ever there was one, returned the exceptional figures of eight wickets for just ten runs as Leicestershire were blown away for only 34 in their second innings.
It was the lowest score this season and the lowest Leicestershire total since 1965.
But, just as impressive, was the batting of Ravi Bopara. There may be a temptation to overlook his contribution in favour of Masters' excellence but, on a pitch where all other batsmen struggled to even survive, Bopara provided a remarkable demonstration of temperament and technique that should serve as a reminder of his enduring class.
The pair combined to sentence Leicestershire to a crushing 280-run defeat in just three days. It's a result that leaves them rooted to the bottom of Division Two and raises serious questions about the recent management of the club. They finished last season in a creditable fourth position, after all, but after losing their chairman, chief executive and head coach at the end of the campaign, have clearly lost their way. It is, it should be noted, barely six weeks since they were dismissed for 48 by Northants.
For Essex, however, this is a result that revives their promotion hopes. They still have ground to make up but they have the talent - and, it would seem, the spirit - to do so.
Leicestershire were never likely to reach their fourth-innings target of 315. The pitch was simply too demanding. But to subside so feebly was testament not just to Masters' excellent bowling, but to their own spineless batting. Masters, gaining movement in the air and off the pitch, would have troubled any batsman in these conditions, but the tentative prods and the gaps between bat and pad that Leicestershire exhibited made life too easy for him.
Still, he took advantage of the helpful conditions and dispirited opposition superbly. Bowling gun-barrel straight, he simply allowed the conditions, and the flimsy batting, to do the rest. He was twice on a hat-trick as he dismissed Matt Boyce, James Taylor and Wayne White in the same over and Nathan Buck four balls later. Then, the over after that, Josh Cobb and Jigar Naik followed to successive balls. That meant he had taken six wickets in just 16 deliveries; all but one of them a batsman with a first-class century to his name.
But, as a modest Masters admitted afterwards: "Ravi's batting set it all up, really. It was a good pitch to bowl on - it was seaming and swinging - so his innings was outstanding. It's an unbelievable day for me, too; the sort of thing you dream about as a kid."
With the dramatic fourth innings, it would be easy to overlook the effort from Bopara. Some will point to the modest opposition and the lack of intensity in the fixture and conclude that such a performance bears little relation to the rigours of the Test arena.
But that would be wrong. 26-year-old Bopara was forced to utilise every ounce of his technique and temperament to survive on this surface. What is more, he produced this performance on his maiden appearance as a captain in the Championship and with his team's whole season in danger of fading away.
After all, when he came to the crease on the second day, his side were two down and ten in arrears. Even when Adam Wheater, driving loosely to cover, was the sixth Essex man out, his team were only 127 ahead and Bopara was left with just the tail to accompany him.
Yet Bopara scarcely played a false stroke. His defence was superbly solid, his concentration utterly unwavering throughout his seven-and-half-hour vigil and, when the opportunity arose, he showed he could still time the ball with a sweetness granted to very few.
The successive pulls to the boundary off Nathan Buck were imperious; the on-driven four off Nadeem Malik simply beautiful. Surely Bopara is young enough to come again at Test level?
Masters showed some skill with the bat, too. The pair added 111 in 40 overs for Essex's seventh wicket, with Masters contributing his highest score since April 2010 and Bopara going on to register his highest score since August 2009; the month he was dropped by England.
It was, in all, his 20th first-class century and his third of the season. Tellingly, however, it was his first since he was omitted from the Test squad in May.
He did survive one moment of fortune. When he had 80, he played back to a delivery from Wayne White only to see the ball roll back off the face of the bat and on to his off stump. Somehow, however, the bails remained unmoved. He didn't give another chance until he had 172.
Indeed, it was an innings of which Trevor Bailey would have been proud. Bailey, the Essex legend who was famous for his obdurate batting, lived just down the road until his untimely death in February, and was a regular visitor to this festival. But, much as he'd have enjoyed Bopara's batting, he would have been appalled by Leicestershire's.