Lancashire 141 for 8 (Porter 4-25, Harmer 4-44) trail Essex 150 (Mennie 3-52) by nine runs
It might be stretching it a bit to suggest the Championship offers a rudder to steer us in these times of change, but in some cases familiarity does breed content. That was certainly the case for those Essex supporters watching the two standout performers of last season’s title-winning team go about their business under an unseasonable April sun. Jamie Porter and Simon Harmer were back in harness, following 147 wickets between them in 2017, and keeping the champions in contention.
For a while, it was all threatening to go Pete Tong, as they say in these parts. Essex required some biffing from their No. 10, Australia international Peter Siddle, to reach 150 – hardly the most intimidating of opening batting efforts for the season (having been denied any on-pitch action in the first round at Headingley) but reminiscent of the 159 they managed on the first day against the same opponents last year. And we all know how that turned out.
They then went to work with the ball, Porter finding the thudding stride that took him to within a back injury of a Test call-up over the winter. Lancashire’s top three – Keaton Jennings, Haseeb Hameed and Alex Davies, all England prospects – fell in an opening burst of 3 for 11, and he returned to remove Shiv Chanderpaul later in the evening session, as Lancashire stuttered to 109 for 7 before Jordan Clark kept them in with a sniff of a first-innings lead.
Andy Flower, coach of the England Lions, was in town to give feedback on the likes of Jennings, Hameed and Essex’s Dan Lawrence, after their involvement in the winter tour of the Caribbean. That Lions series against West Indies A showed up the batsmen’s shortcomings against spin but, if Flower had hoped to watch one of his charges bat through a session in more familiar conditions, he was to be disappointed.
Seam had done the trick for Lancashire, but Essex did not wait too long to introduce Harmer: Liam Livingstone, the unused batsman in England’s most recent Test squad, was taken at short leg for an attractive 33 in the 18th over, Harmer’s first – though Livingstone seemed unhappy with the decision. Dane Vilas fell in identical fashion, to similar disgruntlement, as Harmer and Porter – Essex’s HP sauce – threatened to mop up.
The topic up and down the country may have been 100-ball cricket, the ECB’s latest grow-the-game wheeze, but the patrons at Chelmsford were concerned only with the old verities. There was humbug to be found, but only in small amounts, as fans returned to what we are bound to refer to as the home of the champions for a while yet, eager to drink in the sunshine and see Essex in Championship action for the first time in 2018.
There were queues at the gates ahead of their 10am opening, the Tom Pearce Stand was brimming and – an important ritual, this – the first shirtless patrons of the summer were visible by early afternoon. Not too much had changed over the winter around one of the circuit’s cosiest grounds, but the Division One winners’ pennant hung (somewhat limply) by the pavilion and you can now find such delicacies as bratwurst on the lunch menu.
On the field, the white-clad players went about their business, moving back and forth in the timeless manner described in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, “a repetition of pulmonary rhythm, as if the field breathed through its luminous visitors”.
The cricket was somewhat less poetic. Until Siddle brought some fast-bowler’s grunt, whacking sixes down the ground in each direction, Essex’s innings had taken on a bronchial quality, puffing along as wickets fell. Having introduced himself, Essex’s overseas debutant was then engaged by a member of the crowd down at fine leg in a jovial discussion about whether the pugnacious Siddle had ever considered being a boxer.
The fighting was one-sided to start with, although Essex might have felt they had denied Lancashire the initiative by reaching 38 for 1 after the first hour. But Nick Browne, having pilfered 23 from 54 balls, received an excellent bail-trimming delivery from Joe Mennie, Lancashire’s Australian pace bowler, coming round the wicket, and batsmen came and went thereafter.
The Lancashire attack, now led by Graham Onions – still an insistent, angular menace at 35 – found their range on a pitch that was perhaps a bit soft, with Lawrence the recipient of a particularly good ball from Clark that turned him around like a nightclub doorman. Tom Westley brought coos with one straight drive but fenced to slip, while Ravi Bopara and James Foster were both lured into prods outside off, and Ryan ten Doeschate was adjudged lbw as Mennie brought the ball back in. Essex’s batsmen dragged themselves off but, not for the first time, Porter and Harmer dragged them back into it.