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Napier leaves Colchester a big-hitting farewell

Essex 358 (ten Doeschate 83, Lawrence 65, Jordan 4-99) and 470 for 8 (ten Doeschate 109, Napier 124, Jordan 3-88) drew with Sussex 448 (Jordan 131, Joyce 92, Archer 73, Napier 5-114)
Scorecard

This looked, for a long time, looked like being remembered as Chris Jordan's match, or maybe even Jofra Archer's match. But Graham Napier was among his people, here at Castle Park, his homeground in Colchester, where he was born.

The crowd was sparse, and most of them seemed to be discussing their latest bout of gout or their latest round of bets. Even more of them seemed, in tones sterner still, to believe that they were watching the last day of the Colchester Festival, ever.

All the more reason, then, for this to be Graham Napier's match. Napier, by the standards of the shires, has always been a cricketer with a touch of Hollywood about him, so after a typically tenacious five-for in Sussex's innings and - vitally for a fierce competitor - with plenty still worth fighting for, he made a marvellous draw-securing 124, the seventh first-class ton (and first since 2013) of a career that will be long-remembered in these parts.

When that draw - which surely felt like a win, and takes Essex top of Division Two by a point - had been declared and he'd had time to ditch his pads and his whites, he wandered over, shaking plenty of hands on the way, hugged his mother and kissed his wife, all the while smiling wearily; the local lad done good.

The most impressive aspect of Napier's innings was his ability to rein in his instincts for some of his trademark tonk. He was patient, reading the match situation, nudging and nurdling his way to seven from his first 40 balls. Having lost Ryan ten Doeschate for a century every bit as good as his own, Napier continued to accumulate in the company of David Masters, who defended as though his life depended on it during a 28-over partnership that put the result beyond doubt.

Only after tea, following 20 overs of graft for the pair and with the game safe, did he open those burly shoulders, punching through mid-on, sweeping the spinners and bunting to cow. Having brought up his century with an ugly top-edged sweep that went through the hands of the running square-leg, he nailed wicketkeeper Ben Brown down the ground for three sixes in four balls, before becoming the wicketkeeper's first professional wicket - caught at long-on.

The bearhug Masters was given up on arrival of the ton appeared as if it might never end. Free from the shackles of that embrace, Masters took 30 from ten Brown deliveries, in his old mate Napes' spirit.

"It's been an emotional game," Napier, affable as ever, reflected. "To walk off the field with five wickets and a hundred to my name, at what is just a lovely place to come and play cricket, knowing it's the last time I'll walk off on this ground: it's a fairytale. This is my first club, I've played here since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and in the Colchester area generally.

"After lunch was a tough session. The longer we batted, the less we had to bowl, so that was on my mind! I get huge amounts of pleasure from playing that way, batting against my instincts. I think it sums up what four-day cricket is about. This is why we play it and love it; it's my favourite form of the game. Four days of tough cricket, and it's going down to two hours before the end before we know what the outcome would be. That's hugely satisfying."

There was nothing certain, of course, about this being such a happy ending for Essex when Ashar Zaidi, moments after being dropped at long-off, slogged to the man at cow. They were 170 ahead, shortly before lunch, and out ambled No. 8 Napier to join ten Doeschate, who had earlier lost James Foster to the first ball of a new Jordan spell after 45 minutes of resistance.

This, from ten Doeschate, was not merely a captain's innings. It was the sort of captain's innings a captain plays when the team he captains have just signed another potential captain: Varun Chopra in this case. He made 109, across five-and-a-half hours, a triumph of nose-to-the-ground dogged defence, until he was surprisingly bowled round the legs by Luke Wells.

He had milked singles, propping miles forward with soft hands and defending with the splice and only playing strokes - cuts, flicks and jabbed drives - when they were absolutely on offer. He had done brilliantly to survive 27 overs on day three, let alone take the game within 55 overs of its conclusion. Napier, fortunately for him, did the rest.

Perhaps Chopra won't captain Essex next season after all. Ten Doeschate's side, despite all three of their wins having come with Alastair Cook in the XI, remain very well placed for promotion. Before that, they have quarter-finals - starting on Monday in Nottingham - in both white-ball competitions.

There was little more Sussex and Luke Wright, who remained cheerful as ever, could have done. By the end, Danny Briggs was bowling medium pace and the wicketkeeper was being sprayed to all parts, and before then Wright had tried leg theory, spin twins and everything in between. A pitch that had looked ready to break up just remained too true, and the batting too good.

As the afternoon drifted on Sussex, just like everyone else, realised a win was beyond them, and they might as well just settle for a part in a day that will live long in the memory.