Kent 182 (Siddle 3-29) trail Essex 313 by 131 runs
When Essex won the County Championship in 2017, Jamie Porter and Simon Harmer shared 147 wickets between them. The plan was simple; Porter grabbed wickets with the new ball, Harmer came on once the lacquer had gone, wheeled away from one end and an assortment of seamers rotated at the other.
The plan was pretty much repeated last season, but Essex's batsmen didn't get the volume of runs to back up Porter, Harmer and Peter Siddle. Here at Chelmsford against Kent, it's been like the (not so) old times all over again. Alastair Cook's 125 in Essex's first innings (64 more than anyone else has managed in this match so far) gave his bowlers plenty to play with on a pitch that is assisting the seamers and providing enough encouragement for a very good spinner. Porter, Harmer and Siddle have played to their hearts' content. At times it was like watching a particularly sadistic cat toying with a particularly infirm mouse.
Kent took just 32 balls to wrap up Essex's innings in the morning session. Thereafter the torture began. Sean Dickson, fresh from a match haul of 219 runs against Surrey at Beckenham last week, confirmed the impression that he is very much a feast or famine batsman by succumbing to the last ball of Porter's opening over, giving a catch to Harmer in the slips.
It wasn't until the 53rd ball of the innings that we witnessed Kent's second scoring shot as the returning Joe Denly and the usually fluent Zak Crawley were offered nothing by Essex's disciplined opening bowlers. No width, nothing short, not the merest sniff of an opportunity. When Crawley departed to the last ball before lunch, caught in the leg trap by Ravi Bopara off Harmer, Kent had crawled to 42 for 3 off 23.1 overs.
This was not the sort of cricket designed to attract a new audience of cricket agnostics. This was very much for the connoisseur but my goodness it was absorbing. It is often said that spinners get a raw deal with the way the red-ball fixtures congest at the start and end of the season. But a very good spinner - and Harmer really is a very good spinner - find ways to thrive be it in April, May or July. Last year, Surrey signed the pace-bowling Kolpak Morne Morkel, and he was arguably the difference that turned a good side into a Championship-winning one. Harmer's impact at Essex has been no less profound. To watch him tie Kent's batsmen in knots, and nail most of their feet to the crease for good measure, was to watch a serious operator prove how potent top-class spin bowling can be, whatever the conditions, whatever the time of year.
He looks to get batsmen caught in the leg trap either at short-leg or, as he did twice here, round the corner at leg-slip. To achieve this he has to generate significant turn and, crucially bounce. His height helps. And yes, the pitch also helped, though not extravagantly. The fields that Ryan ten Doeschate sets for him resemble the sort of fields you see in old photographs of Jim Laker bowling in the 1950s. To watch Harmer is, it feels, like stepping back in time.
At the other end, however, he is assisted by a trio of very able seamers who never release the pressure. Although Porter and Sam Cook took the new ball, arguably Siddle is the most important of the three. Hammering away at a length and letting his natural variations combine with slippery pace, he ensured Kent went nowhere. Between the three seamers, they bowled 53.2 overs conceding just 91 runs and bagging seven wickets. Very seldom did any of them try the short ball. There was enough in the wicket for them to know that relentless nagging accuracy would be enough.
It is true that some of Kent's batsmen are not in the best of nick, notably Daniel Bell-Drummond and Darren Stevens, but the former, particularly, was determined to stick it out. It was at times not pretty to watch as he groped and pushed at thin air ball after ball, but what does impress about this Kent side is that they didn't collapse. But like a punch-drunk boxer who has failed to land a retaliatory blow, they really could do little more than delay the inevitable. It was to their credit that they lasted 88.2 overs, but a last-wicket partnership of 45 between Matt Milnes and Imran Qayyum - the highest of the innings - was nothing like enough.
When Milnes was bowled off the last ball of the day, the only batsman not to be dismissed to a catch behind the wicket, Kent had conceded a first-innings deficit of 131. On what is a good sporting pitch they may struggle to get back into this match, but they have shown enough character, not just in their first innings but throughout the season so far, to suggest they'll give it a damn good go.