Northamptonshire 156 for 5 (Peters 60, Napier 3-30) trail Essex 183 (Napier 73*, Crook 4-39) by 27 runs
Northamptonshire weren't touted as potential Division Two promotion contenders but few counties have started 2013 better. Only rain denied them victory after bowling Glamorgan out for 134 last week and here the vaunted Essex batting line-up were dismissed for 183.
The shoddy shot selection of Essex's top order was partially to blame for their fate but significant credit must go to Northants' seamers. Steven Crook was outstanding, claiming Mark Pettini caught at second slip to a ball that reared up and then James Foster clean bowled to a delivery that moved late in the same over on the stroke of lunch. Ravi Bopara was utterly becalmed by Crook's unrelenting line in his 31-ball 6 and edged behind just three balls after being dropped at second slip to another tentative forward prod. Since returning to Northants, Crook has now taken nine Championship wickets at under ten apiece.
Crook's career path may have been unconventional - he briefly retired from cricket a few years ago - but his bowling success, based on a strong, repeatable action and a consistent line just outside off stump, is certainly not.
Northants have quietly assembled a formidable seam attack at Wantage Road. Australian Trent Copeland bowls a consistently threatening off stump line, which accounted for the stylish Tom Westley; David Willey showed the priceless left-armer's virtue of swinging the ball back from around the wicket; and Andrew Hall's relentless wicket-to-wicket bowling trapped Essex's overseas player Rob Quiney lbw. Together, they easily vindicated Stephen Peters' decision to bowl after winning the toss.
Peters would have been particularly thrilled that three bowling changers yielded wickets within two balls. As Crook later said, "We've bowled well as a unit and we've got some variation in our attack - we're not all doing the same thing."
That Essex even mustered 183 was the result of Graham Napier's belligerent unbeaten 73. With Essex in disarray at 138 for 9, Napier responded as is his wont, thrashing five sixes in ten balls. A couple were harrumphed over long-on, and there were a trio of upper cuts for six as Napier sagaciously targeted the short third man boundary. It's not often that a bowler can feel frustrated with figures of 4 for 39, but that was Crook's fate after Napier plundered him for 22 in an over.
Napier, who said he had never played in windier conditions, was almost as impressive with the ball, bustling in with considerable pace to take 3 for 30. Indeed, had substitute Tom Craddock taken Rob Newton - who has batted pleasingly for his unbeaten 35 - just before the close, Essex might even be dreaming of a first innings advantage.
But Napier and Reece Topley might have benefited from a little more support. While Topley was impressive, fellow left-armer Tymal Mills bowled too many short deliveries on leg stump. Maurice Chambers was also inconsistent, going for 27 in five overs, and was a little fortunate to dismiss Alex Wakely, caught at square leg of a lackadaisical flick. But he was also unlucky not to get another wicket: he got a ball to rear up to Rob Newton's glove, and it bounced onto off stump without dislodging the bail. As wags immediately remarked, it was a case of Newton defying gravity.
Fifteen dismissals in the day might suggest this was a pitch with excessive zest but, although good bowlers can find seam movement and bounce, it is an excellent cricket wicket. Indeed, if there is a problem with the conditions it is with the wind. Napier avoided blaming the wicket for Essex's first innings total, saying only "it's a strange pitch - when it's done something it's done a lot".
That the wicket rewards good batsmanship was highlighted by Stephen Peters, who played the late-cut deliciously in his 60. It is often remarked that Peters hasn't enjoyed the career expected after scoring a match-winning hundred in the Under-19 World Cup Final in 1998 but he remains one of the most aesthetically pleasing batsmen on the county circuit.