Essex v Gloucestershire, County Championship, Division Two, Chelmsford April 11, 2016

Cook lays down a marker for England contenders

Essex 287 for 6 (Westley 121, Cook 105) lead Gloucestershire 262 by 25 runs
Scorecard

Alastair Cook and Tom Westley log their first hundreds of the season © Getty Images

Alastair Cook had issued a rallying cry to England's unproductive top order to lay down markers ahead of the first Test - not as much expressing an appetite for change as a simple desire to see consistency of run making from those in contention.

Make runs, was Cook's straightforward exhortation to all concerned and, the message so delivered, responsible guy that he is, he felt obliged to respond himself. In his first innings of the season, he took Gloucestershire for 105, one of the least demanding hundreds of his career perhaps, but one that restated that his desire still runs strong.

"I have said that there are places up for grabs," Cook said. "People have taken that as looking for change. That's not entirely right but it's important if you say things like that you have to back up words with actions. We all know how important early-season runs are."

He has spent the past few months as a spectator, as excited as anybody at England's T20 dash and dare, as briefly downcast by the cruel twist in a final that seemed theirs, but the spectator has given way to the player once more. With a child in his arms and his grandmother looking on, the Cook clan was out in force to support him.

At 224 for 1, a hundred also bagged by the impressive Tom Westley, and a record Essex second-wicket stand against Gloucestershire of 222 established, Essex were only 41 behind Gloucestershire's 262 and a big first-innings lead looked inevitable. But the weather deteriorated, both batsmen fell just before the second new ball and Essex's lead of 25 at the close with only four wickets remaining was a paltry one. The best batting line-up in the division needs to lose its tendency for wastefulness.

When Cook scratched his guard for the first time this season it felt like a staging point in the cricketing calendar, as imprinted on the rhythms of the year as the end of Lent or the Glorious Twelfth. Talk of a World T20 final was consigned to the past. There were Tests to plan for, and Cook immediately set his mind to doing just that.

He has four Championship matches to build-up to the first Investec Test against Sri Lanka and from the moment he received the warmest of welcomes - a routine boundary opportunity on his pads offered by Josh Shaw and politely accepted without hesitation - he looked entirely at ease. The more it continued, the more it became clear that it was very much in keeping with the end of Lent, or indeed the Glorious Twelfth, being an opportunity for excess after a period of want.

Twenty-eight of Cook's 52 first-class centuries have been at England level - as have more than half his first-class matches - so his appearances for Essex these days are valued because of their scarcity. The Chelmsford crowd watches him with a respect given to few. There was only one edgy moment to speak of when he nicked Liam Norwell to second slip on 80, Chris Dent doing well to get a hand on it.

Jack Taylor's offspin removed both Cook and Westley. The ECB's policy on giving the opposing captain the right not to toss is designed to encourage spinners back into the game, but there was some irony when one of the victims of the new regulation turned out to be the England captain. Taylor's seventh ball of the day, shortly after lunch, turned gently - this, at seam-friendly Chelmsford on the second afternoon - to trap Cook leg before, the umpiring decision given after a decent interlude for thought befitting an England captain.

When Westley edged behind, undone by a little extra bounce, Essex then faltered against the new ball. Ravi Bopara was cleaned up by Norwell's nip backer, Dan Lawrence should have sat in for a while but instead mis-pulled Shaw to mid-off and Shaw then had Ryan ten Doeschate lbw. With drizzle showing in the floodlights, the sooner Essex could retreat for the day the better.

Gloucestershire won the Royal London Cup in Richard Dawson's first season as coach, but a one-day trophy does not mean the Championship becomes a breeze and injuries to two frontline pace bowlers, plus the departure of James Fuller to Middlesex, left them stretched.

Shaw and Tom Hampton had four first-class matches between them, so the sight of the England captain 22 yards away should not be under-estimated. Cook dropped his bat so gently on one delivery from Shaw that the bowler must have been taken aback to see it scoot through extra cover for four. It was the antithesis of T20 power hitting: another four runs logged with minimal exertion.

Some would have strutted afterwards, confident in their superiority, but Cook is not that type. He has respect for the game and those who play it and Hampton, after a tough day, can only be heartened by his supportive comments.

"Two days in this game have already shown this regulation on the toss to be a good decision," he said. "We have left grass on here before and have got results in two days but that's not great for English cricket. Tom Hampton might feel he was a bit erratic but they are the guys you have to get overs into because guys with that extra pace and who do swing it will get people out on flatter wickets."

An England captain with a sense of the wider game: as a new season got underway, it made you feel that English cricket was in good hands.

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps

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