Dan Lawrence stands tall to keep Surrey's four horsemen at bay

Dan Lawrence steps out to drive Getty Images

Essex 202 for 4 (Lawrence 87*) trail Surrey 395 (Patel 100*, Jacks 88, Foakes 69) by 193 runs

A high-quality, high-fibre innings from Dan Lawrence gave Essex hope of achieving parity in their match against the reigning champions at the Kia Oval. When bad light brought an early close to the second day, Lawrence was within sight of a century having stoically repelled the best Surrey's four Test quicks (yes, Rikki Clarke will always have Bangladesh 2003-04) could throw at him.

This has developed into an engaging contest, in contrast to the blood-and-thunder encounter between these two - title-winners and the team they had dethroned - at the end of last season. Surrey's base was provided by a maiden first-class hundred from Ryan Patel, celebrated giddily with only No. 11 Morne Morkel for company, but while 395 was a solid first outing of the season it may not be enough to crack Essex in the way Hampshire did last week.

The visitors are not out of trouble here, with a longish tail to come after captain Ryan ten Doeschate, but on an easy-paced surface and with the second new ball some way off, Essex had restored some of the belief in their batting that appeared a fragile thing the moment Alastair Cook departed for 11 in the eighth over of the innings.

Perhaps the knighthood is weighing him down. There was to be no repeat of Cook's Test farewell on this ground at the end of last summer, when he signed off with innings of 71 and 147 against India, as he edged a tentative drive at a full delivery that nipped a fraction on off stump. It is early days but, on two good pitches, Cook has made scores of 50, 8 and 11, which is not quite the domineering return to county colours that Essex supporters were hoping for.

His dismissal by Tom Curran at least meant Morkel would not claim Cook's scalp again - as he did more than any other bowler in Tests - but the South African instead gobbled up another left-hander, Nick Browne trapped lbw five balls later, as Surrey threatened at the sort of dismantling that made them runaway Division One winners last season.

It took a doughty partnership after lunch between Lawrence and Tom Westley to redress the balance. Lawrence marked himself out when making a 161 as a 17-year-old on this ground four years ago - the third-youngest centurion in the history of the Championship - and he restated his quality after a difficult 2018 when he averaged just 23.40. Liam Plunkett, Surrey's 34-year-old debutant, felt the brunt of Lawrence's counterattack on the way to rust-flaked figures of 7-0-55-0.

Six of Plunkett's first 14 balls went to the fence, and Lawrence in all scored 37 off 31 deliveries from England's ODI battering ram, who has been marked in some quarters as a force in decline just as the World Cup approaches. Plunkett's last first-class appearance came at the back end of 2017 and the way Lawrence greeted him with a fierce cut that fizzed past point, hands whiplashing through the stroke, was a signal this would not be an easy return to red-ball duties.

Westley played a compact innings, which was cut short by a brilliant catch at gully from Ollie Pope, and there was some hold-the-pose shot-making too from Rishi Patel, another man on county debut, as Essex's 20-year-old No. 5 batted impudently for 31 from 25 balls before attempting one too many liberties against Curran.

Essex needed to find some fire within because this was a day on which the cold had an almost crystalline quality, a tangible rawness as the clouds sat low and the wind whipped through as if from the Mongolian Steppe. In the stands, as Lawrence and Westley assembled their restorative stand, a group of supporters turned to discussing Game of Thrones. No one would have argued at the suggestion winter was coming.

Surrey had grasped the advantage on the first day through Will Jacks and Patel. Neither had a first-class hundred going into this match but, after Jacks fell 12 short on the previous evening, Patel made good on the promise of 70 not out overnight, bounding towards the pavilion on reaching three figures with a gleeful punch of the air. Peter Siddle's six-for threatened to leave him without enough partners but Morkel did his bit with the bat to allow Patel his moment with his parents watching on.