Cook confirms groove with second ton
Essex 306 (Dunn 5-60) and 258 for 4 dec (Cook 127) drew with Surrey 237 (Smith 65, Mills 4-45)
An inevitable draw to what could have been a compelling encounter came to pass at The Oval. Were it not for an England captain registering a second consecutive hundred, having been battered from pillar to post in the winter and since, there would have been little to cheer but the afternoon sunshine and pre-rush hour finish.
Alastair Cook's was an entertaining century - 127 coming off 202 balls in more than four hours at the crease - not least because it gave us an indication of what kind of form he was in. His biggest tell is the drive; out of nick, he seems almost allergic to it. Here, he was getting his nose to the ball, breathing it in before thrashing it to the boundary. "To me, it indicates I've got good balance," he said afterwards.
Another comfort for Cook was the ECB announcement confirming Paul Farbrace's role as England's new assistant coach. Cook, who was coached by Farbrace at England age-group level, is currently satisfied with his own game. Work away from the limelight has benefitted him greatly.
"The most important thing for me personally is I've gone back to hitting the ball nicely," he said. "I had a good month-and-a-half away from playing in the public eye, working in the nets with Paul Grayson.
"You never turn a corner as such but to get two hundreds at the start of the season, especially in April, is pleasing. I'm genuinely quite chuffed with how things have gone in the past few weeks."
Cook will meet Peter Moores and, presumably, Farbrace on Friday, before Essex's game against Gloucestershire. That might be his last county appearance for a while, with an England training camp being planned for the first week of May, ahead of the ODI with Scotland on May 9, which clashes with Essex's game at Leicestershire.
He looked relieved - a word he corrected himself from using - even taking time to talk shop with young Surrey opener Dom Sibley. Elbows were raised, in the batting, not the football sense, as they discussed technique and Sibley hung on every word. At the end, they shook hands and Cook wished Sibley good luck. Whatever you think of his leadership, Cook has his moments of excelling as a statesman.
Essex made light work of finishing off Surrey's first innings in the morning. While Jason Roy was able to take 14 off David Masters' second over of the day, a sharp over from Mills saw Chris Tremlett's stumps splattered and Jade Dernbach caught on the off side, going for a wild hack to leg. Graham Napier's first ball was full and straight to trap Roy in front and, with Zahar Ansari not batting, Essex took a lead of 69 into the second innings.
While Jaik Mickleburgh took some time to get used to the pace of the pitch, which was also displaying some variable bounce, Cook was in his element. He was troubled once by a ball that died a touch and hit him in front but the vociferous appeals were turned down; it looked to have pitched outside leg stump.
Everything else that strayed on to his pads was dispatched accordingly. Full balls were defended or driven; balls there to cut were, well, you know the rest. Matt Dunn was unable to get the better of him this time around, but the young Surrey quick had his sixth victim of the match when Mickleburgh, who had started to look settled, edged behind.
That the afternoon resembled square practice to Cook is no fault of the home attack. Assistance off the pitch declined with each over and the England captain was more committed with his footwork than at any point. In the 44th over, he hit Dernbach through extra cover and signed off the shot with an outlandish flourish that had his bat finishing parallel to his back.
It was a cathartic moment, a release through flamboyancy - a trait he is not associated with. He was almost apologetic after, playing out the rest of the over in dot balls, before returning to manoeuvring the ball from his back-foot base. A guide behind point, follow by a cut in front of it took him to 96, before a procession of singles, culminating in a squirt into the leg side, got him to three figures.
Those that remained in the ground awoke 20 minutes before the close when Dom Sibley let out a dull shriek for his maiden first-class wicket, as Ravi Bopara attempted to guide a ball on off stump down to third man, but missed. If both had the opportunity to do it all again, you hope they would decline.