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Foster's emotional ton adds to Essex feelgood factor

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County Championship Round-up: Patel's golden summer continues (1:24)

Defending champions Middlesex look on course for their first victory while two old-stagers star for Essex. (1:24)

Warwickshire 60 for 2 trail Essex 541 for 9 dec (Bopara 192, Foster 121, Browne 84, Patel 4-138) by 481 runs
Scorecard

Give or take the little matter of a last over defeat in the Royal London Cup semi-final, these are good times for Essex. They are top of the Championship in their first season back in Division One and the joie de vivre has fittingly returned to a county that, at its best, has always known how to combine business with pleasure. There is a big gulf between the divisions but they have leapt it with ease.

By batting for much of the first two days on that pitch where they suffered such an agonising last-over defeat against Nottinghamshire, they have ensured there will be no hangover in the Championship. If the pitch deteriorates enough, their 541 for 9 can be a bridgehead for victory. If not, they will still carry their Championship challenge deep into the second half of the summer.

Not one, but two wavering careers were restored to full working order against a Warwickshire side that must have been feeling its age after 164 overs in the field under a broiling sun. James Foster and Ravi Bopara both made hundreds, with Bopara batting for eight hours to make 192 in what was his first Championship hundred for three years. Such a sense that the feel-good is spreading to all members of the squad is bound to have a beneficial effect.

Bopara's attempts to enliven his career once his England days were over by taking up the limited-overs captaincy did not quite work out. No harm done in trying it. It felt like a good ruse, only for Bopara to discover that he liked nothing more than to just rock up and play, concentrating on the more important matters like remembering to put his kit in the car.

Foster, by his own admission, recognised that he might not even play this season. When he took up a cricket coaching role at Forest School, his old school, at the end of 2015, his talk of dovetailing the two roles sounded ambitious, considering what he termed a "ridiculous" county schedule.

When Essex enticed back a former keeper, Adam Wheater a year later, and gave him the keeping role in all formats at the start of the season, the transition seemed to be gathering pace. But here Foster is, back in the Championship side, "nicking a few down to third man" and sharing a stand of 229 in 64 overs with Bopara that was a county sixth-wicket record against Warwickshire.

For Ronnie Irani, the ebullient chairman of the cricket committee, life has gone swimmingly since he took up the post nearly two years ago. Essex still organise their affairs in traditional fashion, with the cricket chairman exerting a strong influence, and the role seems to suit Irani, who when he is not overseeing Essex's fortunes is a staple on the after-dinner speaking circuit.

When you are winning, the jokes come thick and fast, but Essex have combined shrewd overseas recruitment, such as the South African Simon Harmer on a Kolpak basis with a strong commitment to player development. Unless their seam stocks are depleted, there is no reason why they cannot sustain this challenge to the end, even though Alastair Cook, so important at the top of the order, in helping them to bridge the quality gap, is about to depart for an England Test summer.

Foster's emotions ran high after reaching his first Championship century for more than a year, leaping skywards and punching his fist three times towards the Essex balcony. Moments such as this, late in a career, can seem more joyous, valued because of the awareness that time is running short.

Typically, there were unorthodox moments to savour, more so after lunch as Essex took full command. He played a ramp shot over the wicketkeeper for four and later reverse-swept Jeetan Patel so fine that stumper and slip dived in opposite directions as it sped to the boundary.

It was a brave effort considering that, on 85, he was clanked on the helmet by Boyd Rankin, unfortunate to be followed by one when, in crouching and swaying inside the line of the ball, he did not appear to have done much wrong. After medical attention, he survived the succession of short balls that followed, even reaching his hundred by hooking Rikki Clarke: a satisfying pronouncement that all was well. He fell to Keith Barker's tumbling catch off the left-arm spinner Sunny Singh, whose absence through illness during the morning session had hampered Warwickshire's cause.

Bopara had closed the first day on 84, and had caused a ripple of amusement that he might need a dose of Night Nurse to get a good night's sleep. With night-time temperatures so high, at least everybody was in the same boat. Twice he jabbed at Barker without making contact but from the moment he unfurled an off-drive against the same bowler to move to 92, his century seemed assured. Strong on the off-side and releasing his inhibitions to strike three straight sixes - two in an exploratory over from Andrew Umeed - he was lauded by Foster as "great to bat with, totally cool." It is to be hoped he remembers his cricket bag for a few years yet.

The afternoon was a pleasure for Essex supporters: two fine servants enjoying a renaissance. Up in the media box, Keith Fletcher, one of the proudest Essex servants of all, still involved in bringing forward the next generation, lapped it all up. He was involved in the previous sixth-wicket record, with Allan Border, although he could not remember it. But few can match his cricket knowledge and, as for the best fishing spots in Essex, probably even fewer.