Browne shows up Surrey shortcomings
Essex 266 for 2 (Browne 143, Mickleburgh 61) trail Surrey 340 (Davies 81, Burns 78, Sangakkara 52) by 74 runs
The England captain has not scored a Test century for 23 months. So perhaps it is reassuring to know that the production of Essex opening batsmen remains in fine working order.
Like Alastair Cook, Nick Browne is a left-hander who has come up through the academy. Though the comparison is not perfect - Browne is chunkier, straight driving is his main strength, and he has done little work with Graham Gooch - the two share two other crucial qualities. Like Cook, Browne is a long-format specialist in a T20 age: this was his 14th first-class game, but he is yet to play for Essex in List A or T20 cricket.
And he also shares Cook's insatiable appetite for runs. Last year Browne became the first Essex batsman in history to score unbeaten tons in both innings of a first-class game, when he managed it against Derbyshire. His undemonstrative reaction to reaching his fourth century here spoke of an admirable single-mindedness. "I look to bat time, minutes and balls," he said. "I try not to look at runs so much."
The experience of years of second team cricket - he had to wait until last season, when he was 23, to become a regular - have served him well. "I feel like my game plan now is very well suited to first-class cricket."
In technique and temperament, Browne shapes up as an unobtrusive accumulator; a reminder that, for all its problems, English cricket remains adept at producing batsmen programmed to bat time. But he also has a forceful weight of stroke: unencumbered by playing at The Oval, with an outfield far bigger than that he is used to at Chelmsford, Browne hit 26 boundaries.
If attractive driving was the defining feature of his innings, he also clinically dispatched anything short and was adept at exploiting Gareth Batty's reticence for employing a third man. Browne also showed the ability to change tempo that is a hallmark of many fine players. As Surrey wilted, he hit 52 off his last 60 balls.
So assuredly did Browne play in compiling a career-best score that it was a matter of considerable surprise when, as the evening shadows lengthened, Matt Dunn produced a lifter than nipped away to kiss his outside edge.
No matter. In his alliance with Jaik Mickleburgh, Browne had already put Essex into a position from which surely only they can force victory. Close friends, Browne and Mickleburgh have played copious second team cricket together and both spent the winter in Sydney, they added 155, the highest Essex opening partnership since August 2013.
Mickleburgh's dismissal, lbw after the umpire finally yielded to a fierce appeal from Batty, brought in Daniel Lawrence. Playing the second first-class match of his career at 17 he is evidently not lacking in confidence, as a delightful straight lofted six off Zafar Ansari was testament to.
But as admirable as Essex's batting was, it could not disguise an underwhelming Surrey bowling performance. "We didn't expect them just to be two down," admitted bowling coach Stuart Barnes.
Surrey could point to misfortune: a side strain meant that Jade Dernbach had to go off after only 14 balls. Down on vim when he braved pain to return, he was less threatening and will have a scan tomorrow morning. And Tom Curran often beat the outside edge to no avail. But ultimately Surrey bowled too wide too often, providing ample scope for Browne to thrash the ball down the ground or through the covers.
One had cause to wonder what Stuart Meaker made of it all. At the age of 26, he should be leading the Surrey attack and, especially given England's ridiculous schedule of 17 Test matches in nine months, be pushing to add to an international career comprising two ODIs and two T20s. Instead, for the second consecutive match, he was fully fit and named 12th man. The sight of Jason Roy bowling five overs of his medium-pace trundlers would have been particularly exasperating.
Perhaps it would also have given Surrey cause to reflect on the make-up of their bowling attack: a combination of three fast bowlers and two spinners does not sit easily in England in April. "The two wickets we've come across so far this year have been hard work, so I'm not surprised people are questioning the balance of the attack," Barnes said.
If the inexperience of their two fully fit seamers provided partial mitigation, Surrey were hardly short of a template for how to bowl. In bright but fleeting morning sunshine, Graham Napier bowled fast and full as Essex took Surrey's last four wickets for no runs in just 13 balls. It was emphatic and rather apt that the innings was wrapped up by a yorker that demolished Matt Dunn's off stump. A total of 340 still felt like a commendable effort after being inserted, but that was reckoning without the deeds of Essex's top three.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts