Sir Alastair Cook graces County stage in emphatic Essex win
Former England captain's unbeaten 40 sees side home after Simon Harmer's six-wicket haul
Essex 241 (Browne 67, Fletcher 5-50) and 105 for 2 (Westley 49, Cook 40*) beat Nottinghamshire 187 (Clarke 48, Porter 4-75) and 158 (Duckett 37, Harmer 6-60) by 8 wickets
Few things enhance the County Championship more than distinguished former England greats choosing to stay in the game. Graham Gooch was 41 when he played his last England Test in the 1994-5 Ashes series but he played nearly three more seasons for Essex, the last one as a tribute to his late father Alf. When he finally stood down, frustrated that the runs had finally dried up, he was described by a former team-mate, Derek Pringle, as "the man who has given Methuselah a run for his money."
Sir Alastair Cook is a mere stripling of a lad, at 34, so still concedes seven years to Gooch, and, incidentally, more than 900 years to Methuselah, who was the oldest man in the Bible, and reputedly lived until he was 969.
Nobody quite knows how long Cook will remain with Essex following his international retirement at The Oval last September, with best guesses suggesting a couple of seasons at most, but what goes without saying is that form and runs will have an influence on it. No cricketer, especially those who have played at the highest level, likes to feel they have outstayed their welcome.
Cook has only made two half-centuries this season - one in the opening match of the Championship against Hampshire at Southampton, another in an otherwise unrewarding Royal London Cup sequence against Kent at Beckenham.
His unbeaten 40 from 109 balls at Chelmsford, as Essex ambled to an eight-wicket win against Nottinghamshire, on the third afternoon, was therefore welcome for all those who want to see him sticking around for a good while yet. Unlike Marcus Trescothick, who retired prematurely from England cricket, and found life at Somerset a necessary substitute, Cook has nothing left to prove to himself. There are worst ways to spend a day, tough, than feeling the sun on your back and leather on willow.
He played with certainty ("that's two Sirs out there then," said a Chelmsford wit) but rarely with domination, as if guarding against the constant possibility of Essex batting self-destruction was foremost in his mind. Essex used more than 34 overs in chasing 105, a target that might have been awkward had they needed another 50 and Nottinghamshire's offspinner, Matt Carter, had found the same purchase as his opposite number, Simon Harmer. "Ifs, buts and maybes," as Mick McCarthy, the battle-hardened football manager, likes to reflect scathingly.
Victory was set up by Harmer, whose 6 for 60 took him to 18 Championship wickets for the season. It was his ninth five-wicket haul since he joined Essex at the start of their title-winning season in 2017, the most by any spinner in that time.
Essex's chase hit an immediate pothole with a run-out on the third ball of the first over. Cook turned Carter around the corner and two steps down the pitch were enough to encourage the non-striker, Nick Browne, to hare towards him. Browne's frantic efforts to regain his ground were beaten by Luke Fletcher's dead-eye hit. But they only lost one more wicket when Tom Westley, with his own half-century one hit away, yanked slow left-armer Samit Patel to midwicket
Nottinghamshire's lead on the resumption was only 36 runs with four wickets remaining and if they were to fashion a recovery the two men at the crease, Chris Nash and Tom Moores, had to play a central role. They lasted for eight overs at which point Harmer, who had been brought into the attack immediately, had Nash caught at backward short leg.
Moores was a danger. Even at his most passive, he is an irritant with the bat, in the nicest possible way, forever looking for scoring opportunities and he soon eyed up the off-side boundary against Jamie Porter. An hour of mayhem could have potentially put Nottinghamshsire back in the game, but Harmer silenced him on 22, a stumping for the on-loan keeper Robbie White as he was drawn down the pitch by a ball that turned past his defensive push.
Harmer also had a hand in the dismissal of Luke Fletcher, who had been dropped on nought by Dan Lawrence at fourth slip, off Peter Siddle. This time Harmer's contribution was to take a neat catch at second slip to give Porter his first wicket of the morning. His third needed no assistance, other than from the batsman, Stuart Broad, who lost his off stump attempting to put one onto the A12.
Essex head coach Anthony McGrath was full of praise for Harmer.
"There weren't many batsmen who got in, but saying that, we had the three telling partnerships in the game; Browne and Cook, Siddle and Harmer changed the game and Westley and Cook at the end," McGrath said.
"How many times has Harmer done that [bowling] in four-day cricket? Slater and Duckett were going well and he was pivotal in making them lose six for 16. He was causing problems the whole way through. Even this morning when he didn't get a wicket immediately you could see the pressure building. His class in those situations under pressure, there is no one else you'd want in your team than him."
David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps