Essex 207 for 3 (Westley 84*, Walter 26*) v Worcestershire
What is the new normal anyway? It seemed very much like the old normal, as far as Essex were concerned. In the uncomplicated surroundings of Fortress Chelmsford – the sort of venue that rocks when it is full, but is too low-rise for the current Covid-enforced emptiness to distract from the more important matters in the middle – the Champions launched their twin title defence with a serene display on a brisk spring day.
By the time bad light brought their endeavours to a premature close (or two closes, as it happens, after a seven-ball postscript before stumps were finally pulled) Essex’s captain, Tom Westley, had located the form that eluded him during last season’s Bob Willis Trophy, reaching 84 not out from 210 balls, while their man of the moment, Dan Lawrence, had rumbled along ominously to 46 until an unlucky afternoon dismissal.
Paul Walter was unbeaten alongside his captain at the close, on 26 from 84 balls, an innings compiled at a near-identical one-run-in-three tempo to the only other wickets claimed by Worcestershire’s attack – the openers Nick Browne and Sir Alastair Cook, who had each seemed utterly entrenched until the moment that they weren’t. For it was that sort of a day.
Cook, in the final year of his contract but apparently very content to keep on batting so long as he “finds the middle of his bat not his pad“, did just that to get off the mark with a sweet cover drive – not the sort of shot he often unfurls so early in an innings, let alone a season. He then followed up with an under-edged cut and a more trademark clip off the pads for further boundaries, before Charlie Morris slammed him on the knee-roll to send him on his way for 15.
And so it was six of one, half-a-dozen of the other, so far as Cook’s pre-season declaration was concerned, but he’d shown enough to hint that more is yet to come. As did Browne, although in his case, his best shot of the day was also his undoing, as he attempted to repeat a pleasing drill through the covers off Ed Barnard, and scuffed a similar delivery two balls later straight to cover. Such are the errors that can occur in batting’s cruellest month.
Worcestershire’s attack toiled hard, but edges were few and far between, and the few that were found fell well short of the slips. Even plays-and-misses were limited, save for a brief spell of pressure in the overs after lunch, as Joe Leach and Morris settled into their rhythm. Had there been a crowd, the Chelmsford faithful would have been agreeably lulled by these early-season proceedings. No cause for alarm – few false alarms either – but plenty reason to believe that, had there been any, this hardened line-up would have been jolted into a fitting response.
Instead, they cruised as a collective through the motions – which included seeing off a 20-over diet of legspin from Brett D’Oliveira, which must have been a peculiar way for Lawrence in particular to be welcomed back to Championship action, after his travails against Axar Patel and R Ashwin in India this winter.
His response was a determined one. Firmly camped on the front foot to the seamers and sure-footed against the spin, he was the dominant partner in a 73-run stand with Westley for Essex’s third wicket, and unfurled a selection of strokes that backed up his hunger for further England recognition – the pick of which was a top-of-the-bounce tonk through long-on off Dillon Pennington that confirmed he is a player with power and technique in abundance.
A fifty for Lawrence seemed pre-ordained, until Barnard – the pick of Worcestershire’s attack – rapped his back pad midway through the afternoon session. To the naked eye, he appeared to have been struck outside the line, and height was an issue too, but umpire Neil Mallender’s finger wasn’t hanging around, and nor was a mildly bemused batsman.
By this stage, however, Westley was too settled into his stay to allow Worcestershire a route to the ascendancy. His highest score in 2020 had been 51, albeit he saved his best for last in the Bob Willis final at Lord’s, but he cruised past that mark with a hoisted four, high over the leg side off Barnard, then repeated the dose as Leach dropped short one over later.
Westley had been warmed up well on a chilly day. His first three boundaries had all been in a familiar arc through the leg side, as Worcestershire strayed too regularly into his pads early in his stay, and from that moment he was up and running – a back-foot off-side punch off Morris giving way to his shot of the day, a full-faced striding drive through the covers off Leach.
With the clouds rolling in after tea and the floodlights blinking into action, Westley’s quest for a first first-class century since September 2019 had to be postponed. But all in all, county cricket’s pre-eminent red-ball outfit put together the sort of unflashy day of superiority that has underpinned their domestic dominance in recent seasons. It was as if we had never been away.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket
Source: ESPN Crickinfo