Essex stumble on Bopara's mixed day
Essex 72 for 5 trail Hampshire 197 (Ervine 60, Masters 4-29) by 125 runs
It was a day for comebacks. First Ravi Bopara heard he was in the England Lions squad to face New Zealand: a surprise comeback. Then Adam Wheater, returning to the club he left last winter in search of more wicketkeeping opportunities, misjudged a hook to fall for one: a comeback that disappointed. And finally there was Alastair Cook: a comeback innings that Essex will hope is not yet complete.
Cook closed unbeaten on 25, playing circumspectly while lashing a couple of trademark cut shots through point. With Essex closing on 72 for 5 and trailing by 125, he will need to do plenty more batting tomorrow.
One of county cricket's many attractions can be, as The Kinks sang, "Lazing on a sunny afternoon". But when the England captain is batting the chitchat stops; everyone shuts up and watches the game. After all, Essex do not see much of Cook: since his last Championship appearance almost a year ago, he has assumed the Test captaincy and scored three hundreds in England's series win in India.
Yet Cook's most significant contribution of the day was an unfortunate one when a powerful straight drive was diverted onto the stumps by bowler James Tomlinson to run out Tom Westley, who had been playing nicely for 16. By the close Danny Briggs had trapped Bopara playing half-forward, bringing a sour end to his day, and Sean Ervine's outswing had claimed two wickets to make Hampshire's total seem far more significant.
After Hampshire had won the toss and chosen to bat few would have expected seeing Cook do anything more than man second slip. Hampshire claimed maximum batting points in both of their first two fixtures. Meanwhile, Essex coach Paul Grayson was so appalled by their innings defeat to Northamptonshire that he issued an official apology.
Cook may have had an invigorating impact, but the really significant Essex returnee was David Masters, whose experience and nous were sorely missed at Wantage Road. His pace might barely bother motorway speed cameras, but he troubles the batsmen rather more, nibbling the ball both ways with unrelenting accuracy.
After a spell of 5-3-3-0 from the River End - hardly too shabby itself - Masters switched ends and ran through Hampshire's top order with 3 for 10 in five pre-lunch overs. The most intriguing contest was with George Bailey. Mixing natural intent against the short ball and obvious frailty against seam movement it was possible both to see why he was Australia's Twenty20 captain and he only averaged 18 in the last Sheffield Shield season. Uncertainly groping forward, Bailey was surprised by an inswinger that he inside-edged into his pads to be taken at second slip.
With Bopara celebrating his Lions call-up with two useful wickets, Essex were able to deny Hampshire even the 200 runs necessary to earn a solitary batting point. Only Ervine and James Vince passed 23 against some testing bowling, with Ervine's crunching square of the wicket shots dragging them to an eminently modest 197.
Wheater would have hoped for something rather better on his Chelmsford return. After a warm welcome from the crowd - notably more so than that afforded to Rory Hamilton-Brown at the Oval last week - his natural attacking instincts were strangled by some impressive bowling until he hooked a well-directed bouncer from Reece Topley to long-leg.
Topley, bowling a consistently threatening line outside off stump and using the short ball as a weapon of shock rather than stock, deserved his three wickets. They took him to 50 first-class scalps, only two months after his 19th birthday. As his career develops, he will receive much advice. That received from Masters should be heeded more than most.