Ed Joyce has been emblematic of Sussex's uncertain season. The club captain ended 2014 as the second highest run-scorer in Division One, and with more centuries than anyone else in the country. For Ireland in the World Cup, he acquired the role of not merely batting talisman but de facto spokesman for the entire associate world, pummeling the West Indies and Zimbabwe on the pitch and myopic administration off it.
Such assertiveness has been absent from his return to county cricket. Joyce's first 21 innings of the season brought copious starts but just two half-centuries and no hundreds. Nestled in those statistics, together with the spate of pace bowling injuries Sussex have suffered, is a large part of the explanation of why the club lie eighth in Division One.
Joyce began this innings against Yorkshire resembling a man who has made few runs of late. His opening partnership with Luke Wells began at a funereal rate, scoring at under two an over for the first 20 overs. But what mattered was they survived, even as Wells was almost run out in the first over and Joyce narrowly avoided edging an egregious swipe at a wide ball from Tim Bresnan, promoting much chuntering from the Sussex fans.
It took the introduction of Adil Rashid's legspin for Joyce to reacquaint himself with the more intrepid style that he credited his form last year. A delivery on his pads was clipped over long on for six; two balls later Joyce essayed a pristine drive through the covers for four.
Belatedly the Hove crowd was treated to the Joyce they have become so accustomed to: driving languidly through the offside, manipulating any width by playing the ball late with his supple wrists, and occasionally giving notice of his power. At 5:47, Joyce took two decisive steps down the wicket and lofted Rashid down the ground for six. Finally, he had his first Championship century of the summer.
Joyce's duel with Rashid, unwavering in his determination to flight the ball even as he was attacked, provided the most intoxicating cricket of the game so far. Even as Joyce scored freely off him, hitting 44 off 45 balls he faced from Rashid, he was never unperturbed by the legspinner.
"He was threatening to get me out - he had a bit of rough to bowl into and he's a very good bowler," Joyce said. "I always feel with someone like that you have to keep scoring." Yet the approach eventually cost Joyce his wicket when, to his evident chagrin, he flicked Rashid rather tamely to short leg just after reaching his century.
This performance distilled the essence of Rashid. Operating from the Sea End, the end preferred by Mushtaq Ahmed, Rashid erred both in bowling too full and too short, and dragged the ball down the legside too often to boot. Yet, on a rather turgid wicket, Rashid was by a distance Yorkshire's most threatening bowler, for all the discipline their seamers displayed. When Wells and Joyce had added a hundred for the opening wicket, Rashid reawakened the game from its slumber, uprooting Wells' offstump with a delivery that seemed to turn less than the batsman envisaged and then inducing Matt Machan to poke his second ball to short leg.
Asked whether Rashid was ready for Test cricket, Joyce gave an emphatic "yes". "Like any legspinner he bowls bad balls, but he bowls wicket-taking balls. The real attraction with him is the fact he's a very, very fine batsman as well."
Rashid is not the only Tyke playing at Hove with designs on a place in England's Test squad for the trip to the UAE. While Yorkshire's England contingent were struggling at The Oval, Gary Ballance brought up his century from the tenth ball of the day, nudging Ollie Robinson through midwicket for four. After a rather turbulent summer it was a significant moment in Ballance's career. That his celebration eschewed histrionics reflected the understated manner of the man.
Thereafter Ballance became increasingly contemptuous of Sussex's spin options - or lack thereof. He used his feet to smear Chris Nash down the ground for four, and then lifted him over long on for six. It was a matter of considerable surprise when his offstump was uprooted by extra pace from Chris Liddle, though by that point Ballance had made 50 more than Adam Lyth's tally in nine innings against Australia this summer.
"It's been a tough few weeks, but that gave me a bit of confidence," Ballance said. "You've got to be mentally strong to back your own game and what's got you here. That's what I've done." He has not pushed to bat at three, the position he occupied for England until being dropped after the second Ashes Test. "I don't really mind where I bat. I've always said that when I play for Yorkshire I'll bat wherever they want me to. I'm happy to bat at five if they want me to, but if they want me to bat three next game, I'll do that."
For most of the morning the tannoy's announcement that the Yorkshire President Dickie Bird had mislaid his cap was the most Sussex fans had to cheer about, as Bresnan combined with Ballance to add 197 runs for the seventh wicket, a Yorkshire record against Sussex. The day ended with the whereabouts of Bird's cap still unknown, but the destination of the Division One title is rather less of a mystery.