Essex 106 for 0 (Cook 64*) trail Middlesex 246 (Eskinazi 66, Malan 60, Stirling 77, Harmer 5-77) by 140 runs
"WAIT ON!" The loud bellow echoed around the County Ground just as similar cries of caution have done over the decades. Yet the rich Belfast accent suggested that the Middlesex batsman uttering the warning did not hail from Stanmore or Staines. But Paul Stirling is hardly your normal county cricketer; he is somewhat unconventional in shape and appeared unusual in his response to being dropped at slip: he took 26 off the next nine balls. And perhaps it was fitting that Stirling should be the batsman loudly advising caution, for he was doing so at just gone six o'clock this Monday evening. We were just over halfway through our ration of overs. Normality did not seem the order of the day.
And then one looked more closely at the architecture of the opening exchanges in this afternoon/evening game - surely 'day-night' sacrifices accuracy to monosyllabic convenience - and one noticed a tall off-spinner whose accuracy and flight paid due honour to the Essex tradition personified in some of the county's greatest years by David Acfield. If the trailblazing nature of this day's cricket was captured by Stirling's 77 off 50 balls, the game's steadier virtues were personified by Simon Harmer, who took 5 for 77, his third five-for in a week at Chelmsford. The off-spinner is now the leading bowler in Division One and his ability to exploit a pitch offering bounce but little turn is the main reason Essex are in control of this game.
The subsidiary explanation for Essex's dominance - they trail Middlesex by only 140 runs and have all their wickets in hand - was the batting of a tall Test cricketer who was practising against a pink ball in the Essex nets when some of his colleagues and opponents were still going through their lunchtime stretches. Perhaps more than any other cricketer, Alastair Cook exhausts the thesaurus and enervates metaphor. So yes, there was a pull and three cuts in Cook's first 26 runs; an off-driven reply to a Toby Roland-Jones half-volley was his only break with a routine England supporters would recognise. Clinical, methodical, ruthless. Again.
Every other county in the land would wish their openers possessed Cook's qualities; Middlesex's batsmen clearly needed them as they wasted the winning of the toss, although this profligacy was not the fault of their openers. Nick Gubbins, beaten all ends up by Mohammed Amir's fourth ball in an Essex shirt was leg before to the sixth, which speared wickedly into him. Next over Nick Compton was caught behind off a Jamie Porter delivery which pitched just outside off stump and held its own. 2 for 2 and we readied ourselves for pink-ball pandemonium.
But our preparations were unnecessary. Instead of a steady relay of glum batsmen there was a fine partnership of 120 runs for the third wicket between Middlesex's stand-in skipper Dawid Malan, who played a most cultured innings of 60, and Stevie Eskinazi, whose 66 off 111 balls lost little by comparison. Malan's driving through the covers and on the on-side was a delight and, to a degree, it made the ECB look a trifle silly. For the stated rationale behind the reorganisation of the English season into blocks of Championship, 50-over and T20 cricket was that players should not be asked to move from one format to another in the space of a couple of days. So how might we explain Malan's stylish innings against a pink-ball attack less than 24 hours after he had dispatched South Africa's T20 bowlers all around Cathedral Road on his international debut? Might we call it talent, versatility, composure? Middlesex took afternoon tea - Darjeeling and patum peperium perhaps - with the scoreboard reading 106 for 2. It was probably as well they could not glimpse what lay ahead.
Middlesex's decline in the pre-prandial session began when a blameless Malan was superbly caught behind the wicket by James Foster off a ball from Harmer which turned a fair bit and bounced a lot more. Then Eskinazi pushed forward at Porter but only nicked a catch to Cook at slip. John Simpson's valuable wicket was taken by Amir who arrowed a ball into the wicketkeeper-batsman and almost induced him to walk without waiting for David Millns to don the black cap. John Lever may have watched approvingly from the plush tent where the former players were chewing the fat on President's Day. JK did as much as anyone to win four titles for Essex and in September he might see them win another.
The rest of the session belonged to Harmer, although he had to share some of the headlines with Stirling, who bullocked Paul Walter over the square leg boundary twice in an over and hit five uncomplicated sixes in addition to eight fours. But the off-spinner had both Stirling and Ollie Rayner caught at cover by Ryan ten Doeschate in the same over and Middlesex's formidable tail could not dam the flow of wickets.
Left with 36 overs to bat, the Essex openers exposed the inadequacy of their opponents' total. When Cook was 48 Gubbins committed the fatal mistake of dropping a two-handed chance at cover off Steven Finn. Such indiscretions generally meet with condign punishment. Cook's last shot in cool anger was a square cut off Roland-Jones. The light failed a little and we finally noticed the floodlights.
Essex ended a close-to-perfect day on 106 for no wicket, Cook 64 not out. It is not a bad time to sport the seaxes on one's shirt. At dinner time they had named the pavilion in a tribute to that remarkable nonagenarian, Doug Insole. To the honorand's undoubted delight, Essex are already well placed to win the game and to land their first County Championship since 1992. No wonder, then, that there were precipitate roars of triumph from the popular side in the supper session.
Bliss it was this twilight to be alive and to be an Essex supporter was very heaven.