Rafiq and Sidebottom show Yorkshire grit
Yorkshire 284 for 8 (Lyth 67, Rafiq 49*) v Essex
Perhaps it was fitting that two Yorkshiremen from different backgrounds and different vintages combined to nudge their side ahead in the race to achieve promotion from Division Two.
The upbringings of Ryan Sidebottom, born in the county 34 years ago and steeped in the club's history, and Azeem Rafiq, born and raised in Pakistan for the first half of his 21 years, might have been contrasting, but the pair are united by a passion for the team they represent and might be used as a pretty decent representation of the character of the new Yorkshire: a club that has, while respecting its illustrious past, now embraced the diverse communities that will surely play an increasingly large part in its future.
In Rafiq they have a cricketer who could represent them with distinction for many years. Promoted during the injury-induced absence of Andrew Gale to lead the side during the FLt20 - the youngest captain the club have ever had - Rafiq has the character to turn his talent into something tangible and here, with his side under pressure and the game in the balance, produced his highest Championship score of the season. Despite batting for two-and-a-half hours - by some distance the longest innings on the first day of this game - he hit only one boundary but produced a performance characterised by the grit and determination for which Yorkshire was once famous.
Such dedication was a quality in scarce supply on the first day of this game. While both sides boast talent in abundance there was, whether through a lack of application, technique or discipline, some deeply mediocre cricket played. Several of the bowlers donated runs through a poor control of line and length, while several Yorkshire batsmen will reflect that they contributed to their own dismissals.
In that context, the eighth-wicket partnership of 60 between Rafiq and Sidebottom was vital. Indeed, on a green pitch, offering variable bounce and assistance to bowlers of all types, it might just prove the difference between success and failure in a season built around achieving promotion from this division. Yorkshire coach, Jason Gillespie, reasoned that 300 should be consider a par score and felt that the pitch would offer increasing help to bowlers as the game progresses.
Certainly Yorkshire were grateful for their contribution. At one stage, through some clumsy batting, they had subsided to 166 for 6 but, first with Andy Hodd and then with Sidebottom, Rafiq oversaw a recovery that has given his side a decent chance of securing a third batting bonus point and a challenging first innings total. If Sidebottom, who counter-attacked intelligently in also recording his highest Championship score of the season, played the more eye-catching innings - launching into some ferocious drives off the seamers - it was Rafiq who nudged, glanced and left the ball with the patience that his side required. And despite losing Sidebottom, driving a return catch, to the final delivery of the day, Rafiq survived.
"We were staring down the barrel for a while there," Sidebottom said afterwards. "So that was a vital partnership for us. It was disappointing that we gave some wickets away but the pitch is a bit two-paced and, if we can get to about 320, we'll be well placed."
Still, Yorkshire may yet come to reflect that they surrendered too many soft dismissals. The nadir came when Hodd, in two minds about a single that was never there, was run out attempting to regain his ground, though Gale, whose 54 balls of torture ended when he charged down the pitch and gave a leading edge to cover, and Phil Jaques, who top-edged a pull, will not take much pleasure in their dismissals, either. Anthony McGrath, who guided a catch to James Foster in attempting a leg glance, might consider himself somewhat unfortunate, while Gary Ballance spooned a simple catch to mid-on having misjudged the pace of a short ball.
The most assured batting of the day came from Adam Lyth. It is Joe Root who will surely be selected in England's Test squad for the tour of India but anyone attending this game and not knowing which of Yorkshire's opening batsmen were of interest to the national selectors would surely have thought it was Lyth. After losing Root, half forward to Graham Napier's third ball, Lyth feasted on a diet of over-pitched deliveries, drove well on both sides of the wicket and raced to a 42-ball half-century. He was well on course for a century before lunch until, surprised by a sharp bouncer from the impressive Napier, he attempted to withdraw the bat but could only run the ball of its face to Foster.
Essex will also think they could have done better, though. Coming into this game without an experienced trio of seamers in David Masters, Maurice Chambers (both injured) and Charl Willoughby, who has announced his retirement from a first-class career that began in 1994-95, they were obliged to rely on some talented yet clearly raw cricketers. Reece Topley, Tymal Mills and Tom Craddock, aged 18, 20 and 23 respectively, may all have distinguished careers in front of them but, right now, the lack the consistency their talent requires
Topley, tall, left-arm and able to swing the ball, produced several excellent deliveries, while Mills, also left-arm and blessed with sharp pace, hurried the batsmen throughout and broke Sidebottom's box with one delivery. But both were unable to sustain any pressure and donated too many wayward deliveries. Craddock, the leg-spinner, struggled to maintain a consistent length and was out-bowled by the part-time offspin of Tom Westley. Napier, by virtue of his control and his ability to bowl a quicker delivery was, by some distance, the pick of the seamers.
How they could have done with Chris Wright. Wright, the 27-year-old Warwickshire seamer released by Essex last year, is now the second highest wicket-taker in Division One of the County Championship, with 62 wickets at 22.80 apiece. In these conditions, he would have represented a most uncomfortable proposition.