Worcestershire 47 for 0 trail Essex 177 (Tongue 4-45) by 130 runs
Josh Tongue showed why he is one of the outstanding fast-bowling prospects in England with an eye-catching spell against the county champions.
Tongue, maintaining a wonderfully probing line and length, accounted for three high-quality batsmen - Dan Lawrence, Ravi Bopara and Ryan ten Doeschate - for the cost of seven runs in the space of 15 balls. He returned later to claim a fourth wicket and help dismiss Essex for just 177 after they had won the toss and made first use of what appeared to be a decent, if slow, batting surface.
Tongue, aged 20, is not an outright fast bowler. He bowls, at his best, at around 85-88 mph and, while modern thinking suggest fast bowlers might benefit from a long delivery stride, his is short. But his action is high and, as a consequence, he gains sharp bounce. He is admirably level-headed - he hardly bowled a short ball throughout - and is his stock delivery is angled in and straightens. These are early days but it is a long, long time since Worcestershire had a home-grown bowler of such potential. The watching Geoff Arnold, former England seamer and now an ECB pace bowling scout, can only have been impressed.
The delivery that dismissed Lawrence was a beauty: heading for middle, it pitched full enough and moved just enough to hit the top of off stump. Bopara was unfortunate to receive one that also bounced a little more than expected - there was a spot on a length from the Diglis End that appeared to offer extra bounce all day - while ten Doeschate was beaten by late movement as he attempted to hit through the leg side.
"I just tried to hit the pitch hard," Tongue said. "There's a bit more bounce than you normally see at New Road and I felt in more rhythm than I have done so far this season."
Tongue's success reflects well on the Worcestershire production line. He is one of nine home-grown players in this side - Essex also have an admirable eight home-grown players in their team - with the club quietly confident that some of those in waiting in the wings (not least Dillion Pennington, who is thought, at 19, to be the quickest bowler on the staff and Jack Haynes, who is a 17-year-old batsman but could make his Championship debut later in the season) are every bit as good as though who have emerged already.
That's just as well. The club will come under huge pressure to retain the services of Joe Clarke, in particular, with Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire appearing to have hefty budgets to lure players their way. The only sure way for smaller counties to counter such pressures is to ensure there are always more players coming through.
It is intriguing to note that, while fast-bowlers around the country appear to be suffering from an epidemic of stress fractures, Worcestershire have a good track-record in that regard. While Tongue had an ankle operation over the winter and Jack Shantry is currently recovering from what might be best described as a wear-and-tear injury, the only stress fracture among the current crop at New Road is that of George Scrimshaw, a tall quick bowler, who spent time on the ECB fast bowling programme over the winter.
The difference? It seems that while the ECB programme encourages quite a lot of weights-based training, the Worcestershire program is based far more on mobility and stretching.
Top-scorer for Essex was Alastair Cook. Having survived an early scare - had Brett D'Oliverira hit the stumps from square leg, Cook would have been run-out without facing in the first over of the day - he was admirably patient in that first session: leaving the ball well, cutting neatly and driving surprisingly sweetly when the opportunity arose.
But much of his good work was squandered when, in the over after the interval, he pushed at one well outside off stump and edged to first slip. The fielder, Ben Twohig, could be forgiven his obvious relief: on his home debut he had dropped Cook to an almost identical stroke the previous ball.
While it was the afternoon session that included eight wickets that was most eye-catching, Worcestershire bowled equally impressively in the first session. Fifteen of the 31 overs delivered in that morning session were maidens as Essex were limited to just two runs an over under relentless pressure by an admirably disciplined attack. Varun Chopra, replacing Nick Browne who broke a finger in training, went pushing at one outside off, while Tom Westley, who came into the game having suffered three ducks in the space of seven deliveries in his previous three innings, appeared to play down the wrong line to one.
In the afternoon session, Tongue gained fine support from Ed Barnard. While he lacks the pace of Tongue, Barnard is a skilful, disciplined bowler who nibbles the ball both ways and, on these seaming surfaces, presents quite a challenge. Here he had James Foster and Simon Harmer beaten by deliveries that may have come back at them a fraction, with Harmer's inside edge ballooning off the keeper's pads to second slip. Only Harmer, with 22, and Peter Siddle, with an uncomplicated 29, offered much resistance after Cook.
Worcestershire's openers survived a testing final session in failing light - play resumed briefly after 6pm - to give their side an excellent platform in the match.
With both sides having endured tough starts to the season and both sides facing the prospect of having completed more than a third of their Championship program once this match is complete, the next three days could go a long way to defining the complexion of the rest of their campaigns.