Essex 337 for 6 (ten Doeschate 83, Lawrence 65, Archer 3-74) v Sussex Scorecard
There was, at Colchester's idyllic Castle Park, plenty of grumbling early on Thursday. The car park queue took forever, they said; the stand from last year was gone (on grounds of cost), and there weren't enough seats. The beer? Well, that was £4 for a can. And where the hell was Ravi? (Mr Bopara sat the game out due to illness).
What's more, the trees at the Trevor Bailey Drive End had been chopped down, with a pair of moanable results: not only had the ground's perfect circus of foliage been interrupted, but the gap had left the natty new-builds beyond naked. The most generous said things were not what they once were, the more damning suggested - with a game fewer from next season - that this was another festival on its last legs.
Not everything in Essex these days, though, gives quite such reason to lament. Each of the next two weeks bring a white-ball quarter-final, and they sit atop Division Two of the Championship. If their interest in Alex Hales revealed a club bristling with ambition, then the return of Varun Chopra proved that, under Ronnie Irani and Chris Silverwood, they have the pull to attract high-quality players - a Championship-winning captain, indeed.
Essex are yet to win a game that Alastair Cook has not played in, but they possess depth. Not only are they missing Bopara, but Jesse Ryder - who appears unlikely to be at the club next season - and Matt Quinn, who felt sore in the warm-up and was not risked with those quarter-finals in mind.
Despite some quality pace bowling from Jofra Archer, on Championship debut, that depth was on display here, even if they never quite pulled away as they had threatened. There were typically stylish half-centuries from Nick Browne and Dan Lawrence and, late in the day, Ryan ten Doeschate - batting two places higher than he often does - made a rollicking 83 before being bowled by Steve Magoffin. On a pitch with plenty of bounce, it looks a fine toss for ten Doeschate to have won, though it seems unlikely that the events of last year - when spin took 28 of the 36 wickets to fall in Essex's game with Surrey - will be repeated.
The opening session did plenty to abate the morning muttering. Browne left plenty, but had 10 boundaries in his lunchtime 46, including a triptych of straight drives that deserved to be framed and sold at auction, as well as some fine cuts and back-foot punches through point.
After the break, though, things became less comfortable. In Chris Jordan's first over, Browne reached 50 with an edge through vacant third slip, then nicked over Harry Finch - a taller man would have taken it - at first. In his newfound spirit of discomfort, Browne edged behind to become Archer's first Championship wicket then, next ball, Tom Westley was hurried by a ripsnorter of a short ball that took a bit of glove, some helmet, and looped to third slip. Westley, who is having such a fine summer, left looking rather nonplussed. "I felt for him actually," said Luke Wright, echoing the batsman's thoughts. "That would have got most players out."
At the other end stood Jaik Mickleburgh, whose 54 was never pretty but - given Essex's congested top order after the signing of Chopra and the fact that Cook won't play a Test until July 7 next summer - was apposite of timing and unfussy. Eventually, in a tough period that brought an early tea through bad light, he was cleaned up by Magoffin, by now bowling a fine spell of inswing. Lawrence was wonderfully waspish and busy, pulling off the front foot and insouciant on the drive - particularly down the ground - and looked furious when he top-edged another Archer short ball to cover after tea.
Archer, who, at the end of a slow run, has a beautifully smooth action - which perhaps disguises the steepling short ball that earned his second and third wickets and hurried each of Essex's batsman - looks a terrific prospect. He is a mechanically magnificent beanpole who has that knack of making extreme exertion seem effortless. Best of all, he is as excitable as he is exciting; each of his three scalps - particularly Westley - was greeted raucously. The 18-month contract he signed this week looks fine business from Sussex.
Wright, who felt his team had allowed Essex 30 too many and confirmed Harry Finch was having a scan on a blow to the hand, said of Archer: "I wanted him to play, he needed to play, the way he's been bowling. At times you watch him and think if he ran in faster he could bowl really quick. It looks easy for him. He has the surprise ball, with the pace. He runs in slowly and it's casual, then it comes out so quick. Sometimes it's easier when quicks fly in because you have that pace and rhythm."
So, with the late wickets of ten Doeschate and James Foster for a tidy 42, lbw to David Wiese, ended an entertaining day but one that - given five of Essex's top six passed 42 but none bettered the captain's 83 - never totally silenced those grumbles.