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Harum-scarum Essex make uneasy Championship return

Somerset 118 for 5 (Hildreth 51, Porter 4-27) trail Essex 159 (Browne 44, ten Doeschate 35, C Overton 4-40, van Meekeren 4-60) by 41 runs

When Ryan ten Doeschate won the toss on a scorching Bank Holiday Monday, he would have had designs on a day of run gorging. His Essex side began the day proudly 41 points clear at the summit of Division One; their opponents were Somerset, who were not just relegation-threatened but also lacking two of their most potent bowlers. That Varun Chopra square drove the third ball of the day for a boundary, and backed it up with a sumptuous flick for four next delivery, only reinforced the sense that this would be a day for Essex to flaunt their batting might.

And yet, a little over an hour later, ten Doeschate was back in the middle. Essex were 39 for 4, the serenity of their recent Championship performances - they had won their previous four games, two-eight wicket wins sandwiching an appetising pair of innings victories - giving way to a harum-scarum top order performance. It set up a frenetic opening day, of 15 wickets and only 277 runs, the sort to provoke dark mutterings about the deleterious effect of T20 on the techniques of modern batsmen.

By the end of it all, once again, Essex were indebted to Jamie Porter. If the abiding impression of Essex's season so far has been the gluttonous scoring from their top order, especially when fortified by Alastair Cook, and the guile of Simon Harmer, Porter has surely been their most valuable player. Bowling a full, relentlessly probing length, moving the new and old ball alike with wonderful precision, his skill kept Essex aloft after their decidedly ropey first innings batting display.

His four wickets distilled his unremitting excellence all summer long, which has already earned England Lions selection and holds out the promise of more to come in the future. Porter's dexterity bowling to left-handers was shown off by the delivery than slanted across Marcus Trescothick just enough to kiss the edge, and then the exquisite delivery that pitched on middle stump and kissed the edge of Edward Byron's offstump.

The wicket of Tom Abell, flashing an away-swinger behind, was a classic Porter blow. Even more impressive was the precise bouncer to cramp up James Hildreth, who had been playing sumptuously but was left someway behind hooking and avoiding the ball and succeeding only in picking out square leg: testament to Porter's skill in extracting wickets with the old ball as well as the new.

Yet even Porter's commendable 12 overs could not quite overcome the damage Essex had inflicted on themselves in their earlier batting display. Ten Doeschate's early arrival was promoted by three of his teammates, as if in solidarity with Tom Westley, falling lbw playing across the line; the other, the precocious Dan Lawrence, fell to an impudent drive. This was not the application that has got Essex to the summit of Division One.

It is for situations like this that the pugnacity of ten Doeschate, newly acquired by the new South Africa T20 leagues but as valuable in first-class cricket as ever, is so prized. His rasping cuts thundering to the boundary were, as ever, the best antidote to an Essex collapse. A trademark rescue act was proceeding with alacrity when, just after lunch, ten Doeschate slashed Craig Overton to slip. Or, at least, Somerset were convinced he did; ten Doeschate thought that the ball had struck the ground first.

The seconds after, as the umpires conferred, felt like a hinge point in the day. Ten Doeschate was adjudged out; to his next ball, at the start of his following over, Overton's bouncer elicited a top edge from Nick Browne, which was brilliantly snaffled by Paul van Meekeren, diving at full length to make the catch. When James Foster promptly flashed Tim Groenewald's outswinger to first slip, Essex were 98-7, the sort of score that was not uncommon on the fruity surfaces here a few seasons ago but rarely spotted since.

Though the tail heaved Essex to 159, Somerset still rightly left the field revelling in their efforts. With pace, bite and movement, Overton was a menace.

Almost as effective was van Meekeren. On his Championship debut, his full length and ability to seam the ball both ways prized open Essex's top order, and then helped to wrap up the innings too. Each of his four wickets - as well as his supreme catch - were celebrated with a puppyish enthusiasm. County cricket can seem a chore; it is relentless and tough. Watching van Meekeren, though, was also to see a player realise a dream that, playing club cricket in the Netherlands, he would have considered fanciful.