Spot fixing issue clouds T20 launch
Essex 181 for 2 (Pettini 95*, Bopara 45*) beat Middlesex 180 for 5 (Malan 86*, Morgan 77, Topley 3-26) by five wickets
It tells you everything you need to know about the current environment in which televised cricket is played that, moments after an excellent game of T20 cricket played in front of a large audience at Lord's, that Ravi Bopara should find himself fielding questions about match-fixing in a press conference.
It is not that Bopara or anyone else involved in this match is in the least bit suspected of anything untoward. It is that, as cycling and athletics have found, that once a sport is shown to have a problem with corruption, that it casts a shadow over everything else, however good and innocent and clean.
Bopara produced a gem of an innings to clinch this game. With his Essex side required to chase a daunting target of 181, he came to the crease with 69 more runs required and seven-and-a-half overs left.
But he timed his assault so perfectly - he thrashed 24 from the final six deliveries that he faced; albeit against some wretched death bowling - that Essex were able to open their NatWest T20 Blast campaign with a victory with an over remaining.
But it was not his calm head or clean hitting over mid-wicket that interested the media afterwards. It was the spectre of match-fixing. And while Bopara spoke eloquently about the desire to stamp out corruption, he did suggest that more could be done at county level.
"It's a beautiful game," Bopara said. "The last thing we want to do is put the fans off. We want to keep it as clean as possible and keep the fans enjoying it.
"It's horrible when the fans are questioning everything that happens. As far as I know, everyone I've played with has played the game cleanly and we should do everything we can to keep the game clean.
"If there is any odd behaviour it should be reported. It can be drummed into county cricket a bit more just how important it is to report it. That is key."
Bopara also backed Ian Bell's suggestion that county players should be prohibited from communicating with the outside world during limited-overs games; especially televised limited-overs games. So any mobile phones or laptops should be confiscated ahead of matches.
"You don't need to speak to anyone over half a day," Bopara said. "If there is a problem, people can always phone the coach or the manager of the team. But if that's what is required to keep the game clean then let's do it."
As it happens, mobile phones are already taken off players at several clubs, including Essex, during games. But that is more to encourage the players to focus on the game and communicate with their teammates than an attempt to combat corruption."
The talk of corruption partially obscured the excellence of a match-winning innings by Mark Pettini. The Essex captain made an unbeaten 95 from only 54 balls, helping his side to a blistering start to their reply despite a laboured contribution from Alastair Cook.
While Cook limped to 22 from 21 balls, Pettini thrashed a wayward Middlesex attack to all parts as Essex reached 71 without loss by the end of the sixth over. It was the perfect start to a demanding run-chase.
Essex had actually stolen the momentum about half-an-hour earlier. Reece Topley, the tall left-arm swing bowler who missed the first month of the season as he recovered from a stress fracture of the back, delivered two excellent overs - the 18th and 20th - that conceded only eight in total and claimed the wickets of Joe Denly, who looks horribly out of form, Dan Christian, who missed a horrid swing across the line to his first delivery, and Andy Balbirnie, who was caught behind as he tried to pull a slower ball.
"It was an absolutely brilliant spell," Pettini said afterwards, "especially as it was his first serious game back after four months out with a stress fracture."
It meant that Middlesex, who had seemed on course for a total of around 200, scored only 27 from the final four overs and failed to capitalise on a score of 153-2 after 16 overs.
That Middlesex had set such a platform owed much to outstanding innings from Eoin Morgan and Dawid Malan. Morgan, exceptionally strong through mid-wicket, provided a reminder of why he is such a valuable limited-overs player as he thrashed four sixes over the leg-side and punished an attack that could not quite hit the desired full length. Malan, who enjoyed a fine T20 campaign in 2013, also impressed and showed the value of batting through the innings as the middle-order failed to build on the pair's foundations.
Perhaps, had Steven Finn been available, Middlesex might have managed to defend their total. But the fast bowler was rested from the back-to-back T20 games on Saturday and is most unlikely to feature in the Championship match starting on Sunday in Northampton. He has a minor side strain.
This was a fine win for an Essex team stilling missing a couple of senior bowlers and Monty Panesar playing his first T20 match since August 2011.
For a Middlesex side facing back-to-back matches, it was tough to take. They will take little comfort from the knowledge that the experiment with two games in the day seems to have attracted an audience of around 15,000 despite Arsenal playing at Wembley.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo