Middlesex 246 (Stirling 77, Eskinazi 66, Malan 60, Harmer 5-77) and 27 for 0 trail Essex 542 for 3 declared (Browne 221, Cook 193, Chopra 100*) by 269 runs
Batting in a style that often recalled the timekeeping of the Trumpton clock - steadily, sensibly, never too slowly - Essex's batsmen ground Middlesex into the good earth of Chelmsford on the third day of this match. Undeterred by the rain-flecked air or a miserably chill evening, almost the antitheses of ideal conditions for first-class cricket, Alastair Cook and Nick Browne put on 373 runs for the first wicket, not just an Essex first-wicket record but also more than any other pair of batsmen had managed before in matches between these teams.
Then as if to break the spirit of Dawid Malan's cricketers, Varun Chopra, who was only batting in the second half of this match because Tom Westley has joined the Lions, thrashed a century off 74 balls. This mix of accumulation and assault left Essex with a first-innings lead of 296 runs and Ryan ten Doeschate's declaration presented his seam bowlers with 13 overs against batsmen who had been mauled in the field for five hours.
This was a test of mental strength as much as batting skill and it was to the immense credit of both Nick Gubbins and Nick Compton that they withstood the pace attack of Mohammed Amir and Jamie Porter without exposing their colleagues to examination under some of the least impressive lighting in the country.
That said, if Middlesex's cricketers undertake any more long journeys into night as painful as this one, the champions might consider selecting James Tyrone in their eleven. This was an evening on which Dawid Malan and his players had to take refuge in their status as professional sportsmen; they know very well that there will be times like this in their careers and that they must bear them with fortitude. What they did not expect was that the accessories to their misery would be a pink ball and floodlights.
Not that this concerned Essex's more raucous supporters, their partisan support undiminished by either the weather of the slightly staider tempo of this contest. The national press may have noted that Cook's big hundred was good preparation for next week's Lord's Test against South Africa. Of more local concern was his determination to build on his overnight score of 64 not out and help Browne build the platform which licenced Chopra's thrilling blitz.
That initial aim was achieved beyond perhaps even the batsmen's expectations. When Browne clipped Ryan Higgins through square leg for two, the first-wicket stand passed 316, Essex's 23-year-old first-wicket record against any opponents, previously held by Graham Gooch and Paul Prichard. Yet it had already become a day when momentarily significant statistics became all but forgotten landmarks a few hours later. It was also an evening for the daddy-hundreds beloved of Graham Gooch and the daddy-records treasured by badgers everywhere.
Cook's approach to batting has long embraces such paternal priorities and his cricket revealed the bloodless passion for runs which has sustained so many England innings. Three times in the first seven overs of the morning he rocked back and cut balls to the boundary through gully. Cook eventually reached his century off 135 balls, having hit 17 fours, most of them struck into all the old familiar places with all the timeless Cookish graces, all afternoon through.
Middlesex, desperate to halt the steady flow of runs, were left to regret their dropping of Brown on 46, when Steven Finn, surely one of the game's more unlikely slippers, put down an edge off Roland-Jones in the second over of the morning. When he had added 16 more to his score Browne also survived a confident appeal for a catch at the wicket off Ryan Higgins. The Middlesex slip cordon did a passable imitation of the Treorchy Male Voice choir but umpire David Millns was unmoved. Then again, maybe hypothermia had set in.
Browne, whose last three centuries have now all passed 200, made the most of his reprieves. Having reached three figures off 240 balls just after tea he drove Roland-Jones down the ground and through both mid-off and midwicket in the same over, thus proving that half-volleys are just as succulent when bowled with new pink balls. He brought up his second hundred off 128 deliveries and by the end of his innings was almost scoring at will.
Middlesex took their first wicket of the day at 6.55 when Cook's push at a ball from Ollie Rayner only edged a catch to Eskinazi at slip and he departed for 193, two short of his best score for Essex. Any satisfaction felt by Rayner was probably slight and may have been extinguished entirely once the new batsman had taken a liking to his bowling. On half a dozen occasions, Chopra came down the wicket to the off-spinner, got inside the line and hoisted the off-spinner into the Tom Pearce stand or the Doug Insole pavilion. This was a magnificent assault upon seemingly dispirited opponents and many thought it preparatory to further successes for Amir and Jamie Porter. The wickets of Browne, caught at cover off Rayner for 221, and Dan Lawrence, bowled by Higgins for 2, were mere accessories to the forthcoming drama of Middlesex's second innings. And the champions' capacity to tough it out on the final day will be a telling test of their mettle.