Alastair Cook sets course as Essex wend their way into ascendency
Matt Critchley ends day unbeaten on 80 as Kent bowlers struggle for rewards
Essex 327 for 4 (Critchley 80*, Cook 78, Westley 54) vs Kent
You could imagine the conversation among Canterbury spectators of a certain age. "The funny thing is I can never remember where I put my car keys but I can remember when I last saw Kent play Championship cricket as if it was yesterday." It really was that long ago - July 14 to be precise, a distant time to be alive when there were still six candidates for Conservative leader and Penny Mordaunt was widely held to be on a bit of a surge.
Nobody is about to claim Kent and Essex are on a surge, not as far as the Championship is concerned at least. Essex are as mid-table as mid-table can be and their challenge during September is to keep it respectable. Kent began fourth-bottom, 15 points above the bottom two, which we habitually assume to be the relegation positions even though it would take a soothsayer with the talent of Elizabeth Barton to predict what the relegation positions actually are.
Barton worked on the estates of the Archbishop of Canterbury and her prophecies of impending doom after she had fallen ill both endeared her to the masses and infuriated the authorities. That reputation suggests she would have been a very sound choice to announce the exact future of county cricket, except that she was hanged at Tyburn in 1534, which to be fair is a tactic the ECB has yet to adopt to silence the prophets of doom.
Canterbury has a reputation of being one of county cricket's more somnolent crowds, but they were strikingly responsive on the first day, as if 55 days without Championship cricket had left them keen to show their appreciation. It was a bit of a slog for Kent, who conceded 327 for 4 on a batter-friendly pitch and a sultry day, and they won't object too much if worsening weather as the games progress brings a succession of draws across the country.
Kent have also reached the Royal London Cup final in the interim and it is good that they have announced that the Trent Bridge final will be contested by the squad that achieved it with no recourse to those - no lesser person than the captain, Sam Billings, among them - who have been absent for the Hundred.
The long stretch without Championship cricket does at least allow Alastair Cook time to give thought to the family farm in Bedfordshire - the art of sheep dipping has been one thing on his mind according to an appearance on Test Match Special. Cook plays no other format but four-day cricket these days, but he slipped back into the old routine with 78 from 157 balls before reaching at a wide one from Grant Stewart and edging to first slip. He must address that itch although leaping in after the sheep might be taking it too far. Stewart, Kent's most economical bowler, almost had him caught at second slip on 44 when the ball reached Jordan Cox on the half-volley and deserved his wicket.
Cook failed to reach 1000 first-class runs in 2019, the last proper Championship season, but he has 813 at 47.82 now, which places him ninth among Division One run-makers and he still has a maximum of seven innings for normal service to be resumed. If his appetite holds, he has years in him.
Cook was a calming influence for those who - even before they consider the cricket - have felt too old to cope with the Hundred's green and pink colour palette and determinedly modern font (the "Hundred Display"), both of which were held to take us all on "a high-octane journey" (true enough) and to be "warm and family friendly" (a case of designers telling the suits what they want to hear). When Cook leant gently on the sixth ball of the morning, from Matt Quinn, and it trundled almost apologetically through mid-off to the boundary, it was less high-octane than an ultra-responsible exercise in energy conservation.
The morning belonged to Cook and his opening partner, Nick Browne, but Quinn held a fast return catch to remove Browne. Tom Westley looked in good trim, but he was surely aghast at the manner of his dismissal for 54. After thick-edging Harry Podmore to deep third, he jogged the first two runs at a sedate pace, only to develop an inexplicable thirst for a third on Joe Denly's arm and Billings collected an accurate throw to demolish all three stumps with a cry of triumph. Billings departed later with a groin injury with Ollie Robinson deputising.
With Dan Lawrence also yorked by Daniel Bell-Drummond's floaty outswinger, and listing badly to leg in the process, at 221 for 4 Kent had an opportunity to turn the day in their favour, but the second new ball brought no alarms and instead Matt Critchley, who had been dropped on 6 by Ben Compton at short leg just before tea, played with growing elan, making particularly light work of Jack Leaning. Along with Feroze Khushi, he reasserted Essex's authority in the final session in an unbroken stand of 106.
David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps