Napier hauls Essex out of latest hole
Kent 20 for 1 trail Essex 212 (Napier 58, Stevens 4-36) by 192 runs
Once again runs from Graham Napier rescued Essex from a precarious position, as he and captain James Foster ensured the hosts posted a modest yet acceptable first innings score.
Together, Napier and Foster put on 88 for the seventh wicket with some great interplay that allowed both to play their natural games. Foster was aggressive in his counterattack when he first came in but pushed the ball around nicely when Napier - Division Two's leading run scorer, now with 421 runs - strode to the crease.
While he does have a propensity to slog, Napier's runs today and so far this season have come through proper cricket shots; hit very, very hard. His strokes made the outfield look like glass and when he did go big - a straight six off Mark Davies - it was a product of finesse rather than fury; taking a step down the wicket before stepping into a lofted straight drive with immaculate timing.
The talk at tea around the stands was of an eventual move up the order for Napier - but why risk it? Those in the know say his batting this year is a lot more disciplined - "He's got his head down" being the figurative and literal change seen in his approach. Napier didn't pass fifty in the County Championship last year but already he's done it five times - top scoring in four innings - and we're still not out of May.
But a permanent move into the top six (realistically it would be a top seven, but Ryan Ten Doeschate will be closely monitored having returned from the IPL) could see him curb his natural attacking instincts, not least because such a move would be testament to the value of his runs to the side's fortunes. At the moment, they are a very welcome bonus.
James Tredwell won the toss and opted to field in overcast conditions but Tom Westley and Jaik Mickleburgh batted sensibly to give Essex a decent platform. They certainly took their time - the score only got to double figures after 61 balls - but they pushed things along as soon as they got to the pace of the pitch. When Westley was bowled by a sharp delivery from Mark Davies which jagged in off the seam, Essex had been provided with a decent platform by their young openers.
But the afternoon session brought an air of familiarity as their soft batting line up was once again gutted - this time losing four wickets in 32 balls for the addition of only eight runs. While Kent can claim they provided the knife, it was Essex who sharpened it before showing them where to make the first incision.
Ravi Bopara cashed out on his good form, after 178 runs in the previous game against Glamorgan, by hanging his bat out to dry and giving Darren Stevens catching practice at gully. Mickleburgh followed for a well fashioned 37 before Ryan Ten Doeschate - thrust straight into whites after a month in Kolkata purple - played rather flakily at a wide ball that should have been left alone to give Geraint Jones his first catch of the day.
Ben Foakes was trudging back two balls later after trying to leave a ball from Charlie Shreck - having taken a big forward stride he retracted his bat face behind his elbow but failed to hide it completely from the ball, which deflected off it for another easy take for Stevens.
When Foster and Napier fell, the tail soon followed, as Kent took the new ball to remove David Masters and Tom Craddock for little damage.
With 12 overs to negotiate before stumps, Masters removed Rob Key with the help of Foster - though Key was less than pleased as he trudged off. In the end, that was the only casualty and they will return tomorrow on 20 for 1.