Surrey 301-7 (Burns 157*, Panesar 3-95) trail Essex 369 (Pettini 134*, Browne 114, Ansari 5-108) by 68 runs

Monty Panesar could have been forgiven for being a little wistful. At 33, he should be in his prime years and helping England secure an Ashes triumph instead of attempting to salvage his county career.

If such thoughts entered his mind, the warm applause that accompanied him as he walked out to bat at No 11 were a good way to dispel them. So, too, was heaving his third delivery for a clean six over long on. But even better was being encircled by his teammates after Arun Harinath had been well caught at long off, deceived in the flight as he attempted to harrumph Panesar out the ground.

It ended Panesar's 103-day wait for a first-class wicket. Copious time since has been spent trying to piece his career back together. Panesar had taken an indefinite break from the game as he attempted to regain his hunger for the game, worked with a Personal Development Manager at the Professional Cricketers' Association, the freelance coach Neil Burns, and minute after minute and hour after hour honed his bowling in the nets.

Vindication arrived as he bowled 30 overs in the day at Colchester, being entrusted with the long spells he has always relished. For all that has happened in his career since Panesar first captivated English eyes in Nagpur in 2006, his action was as smooth and economical as ever. While his celebrations fell some way shy of the effusive high-fiving that helped acquire his cult status, they became more effusive with each passing wicket. When Steve Davies shouldered arms to a ball that spun in enough to decapitate his offstump, and then Jason Roy was neatly stumped, Panesar clapped his hands in delight. Here was a cricketer relocating his vim and purpose.

Panesar's progress was not all smooth. He bowled too flat on occasions, especially early on, and his length became erratic later in the day. "At times when he gave it a little bit more air it did a bit more for him, but he's obviously trying to make things happen quickly out of the surface so that's probably why he was bowling as quickly as he did," was the assessment of Surrey's centurion Rory Burns.

And Panesar's fielding remains as unkempt as ever. Fielding at mid-off or mid-on, he made several rudimentary mistakes; "fielded Monty," went one unkind cry after he let a push sneak between his legs and to the long-off boundary for four. But the hearty cheers that greeted several good stops on the boundary rope in the dying embers of the day spoke of the delight of many at seeing his return to the first-class game.

Surrey also had a comeback of sorts to toast. Since returning from a horrific collision with Moises Henriques on June 14, Rory Burns has been a little short of runs. His unbeaten 157 provided evidence of how unaffected Burns has been by the incident - "I've got a couple of scars so it's added a bit of character to my otherwise plain face," he joked - and the development of his game.

Before play Surrey coach Graham Ford implored Burns to return to four-day mode, and his judicious leaving provided ample evidence of his adhesive qualities. Just as impressive was the way Burns became more assertive as he settled at the crease.

His innings was underpinned by his meticulously honed cut, ability to work away any ball that drifted onto his pads and intelligent use of the sweep. But in the evening sunshine he unfurled his much-improved cover drive, which he considered too risky to play earlier in the day.

Five balls off Panesar highlighted Burns' growing fluency. In consecutive deliveries, Panesar was swatted through the onside like an irritating fly and then twice driven with finesse through the covers. After a solid defensive shot, Burns was then offered a smidgeon of width and glided the ball through point for another boundary.

That Burns' outstanding innings might not be enough to haul Surrey above Essex's 369 all out reflects a curious feature of the match. While the opening two days have brought centuries, no one else has passed 40. Both Harinath, with a fluent 34, and Gary Wilson, who contributed an adroit 37 marked by assiduous running between the wickets, proved useful allies to Burns, only to perish when they were hinting at permanence.

In contrast what remained of Essex's innings had a distinctly ephemeral feel: in between the final three wickets falling, 46 runs fell in a harum-scarum 55 balls. Although he suffered the ignominy of being hit for 18 in an over, including 11 in three balls from Panesar, Zafar Ansari added two wickets in the morning to finish with 5-108. His fifth first-class five-fer provided fitting reward for 32 overs of intelligent left-arm spin. On a wicket that is turning regularly if not yet too dramatically, Ansari will have to be similarly effective in Essex's second innings: Burns said Surrey would not like to chase more than 200 in the fourth innings.

But such arduous demands of Ansari's bowling are less than ideal preparation for opening the batting, and he made only six before he played indecisively half-forward and nicked Jamie Porter to slip. Given Ansari's emergence as Surrey's number one spinner - he has bowled over a third more overs than Gareth Batty after bowling a third less than him in 2014 - perhaps his overall development as a cricketer would be better served by batting in the middle order.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts