Essex look to Cook for assistance
Hampshire 197 and 77 for 2 lead Essex 254 (Napier 74, Cook 59) by 20 runs
Such is the professionalism of the England team these days that there has never been a higher expectation that when England players return to their county sides in the Championship, they will deliver. That was certainly the case for Joe Root in Yorkshire's victory at Durham and here, Essex need Alastair Cook to bring some stability to their season.
Cook's status, as England's captain, could hardly be more proven. He strolls around Chelmsford with an easy charm which tells of achievements already secured and challenges to come. Essex value his presence all the same as they seek to arrest a disturbing start to the season.
Halfway through this match, Hampshire, strongly fancied for promotion, have edged to a lead of 20 runs, their second innings creeping along at two-an-over. They lost Michael Carberry and Jimmy Adams to David Masters' new-ball spell, Carberry falling to a fast catch by Ben Foakes off the meat of the bat at forward short leg.
It would be understandable if Essex, an innings defeat against Northamptonshire still fresh in the mind, are already hankering after Cook to produce a matchwinning response in the fourth innings. He will be back with England in a flash, but at the moment temporary assistance is welcome.
Cook batted in an orderly fashion as if intent upon gently attuning his mind to the approaching demands of two back-to-back Ashes series. He proceeded without much ado for more than four hours - 176 balls for 59 - before James Tomlinson found a little swing around leg stump and had him lbw.
"It's been Alastair at his most restrained," observed one Essex member as she gazed over the sunlit River Cam at lunchtime. The observation came with a wistful sigh as if she would like to mother him. She sounded like a proud parent, recognising that her offspring had grown up and gone on to better things, but half wishing she could have held back the clock.
At 73 for 6, Essex were in a pickle, the score doing little for the well-being of Paul Grayson, the coach, who was unwell. But Cook stayed on long enough to add a few appealing condiments. The bracing ingredients came, though, from Graham Napier, who struck 74 from 105 balls to give Essex a useful first-innings lead of 57. Their last four wickets added 181.
Napier lost his T20 world record for six-hitting last week when Chris Gayle struck 17 in one knock in his IPL rampage for Royal Challengers Bangalore. Napier had hit 16 for Essex against Sussex Sharks in 2008 and Essex actually delayed a practice session at Northampton to watch Gayle take his record.
Napier felt obliged to pronounce himself "a bit gutted", which is presumably even worse than gutted, on the grounds that some of the bones are left in, but he is an easy-going, uncomplicated sort who will not fret that he has lost part of his place in cricket history - he still jointly holds the first-class record for most sixes in an innings. He found the going strikingly easier than anybody (at least until Tim Phillips hit with gusto for 40 from at No. 10), although there was only one six, a pick-up over midwicket off the left-arm spinner Danny Briggs.
Over lunch the first sun warning of the summer was given on the Chelmsford public address. These are routinely made on county grounds whenever the temperature creeps above about 14 degrees. No sooner was the announcement made than the sun went in and a chill wind took hold again. Such warnings are probably just as well when Cook bats because famously he never sweats and could presumably create a misleading impression. It is a wonder Health & Safety have not banned him because of it.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo