Essex 490 for 9 dec (Westley 213, Wheater 87) and 28 for 1 drew with Worcestershire 475 (Libby 180*, Barnard 128, Pennington 56, Wessels 54)
“This is really starting to get on my tits,” conceded a deeply shrouded member of Essex’s coaching staff, as he pottered round the boundary’s edge to lend morale support to his toiling fast bowler, Sam Cook.
Way back in the mists of time – Saturday morning, as it happens, though it might as well have been the dawn of the steam age – Cook had been chugging along with innings figures of 7.2-3-14-4, including four in the space of 12 balls, and Worcestershire were looking ready for their third innings defeat in as many visits to Chelmsford.
But then Jake Libby got busy – in the purely figurative sense, you understand – to up-end the agenda and shred both the record books and Essex’s collective will to live.
By the time he had been left high and dry on 180 not out, Libby’s formidable front-dog resolve had hoovered up a slew of obscure and not-so-obscure records. His 496-ball effort was the longest county innings since a certain 17-year-old, Dom Sibley, ground out 242 from 536 balls for Surrey against Yorkshire in 2013, while his 681 minutes at the crease fell just two minutes’ shy of Jason Gallian‘s longest recorded county knock, for Lancashire against Derbyshire in 1996.
On his watch, Worcestershire transformed a desperate nadir of 145 for 6 to post a total of 475 that was as impressive as it had been improbable. The late scalp of Sir Alastair Cook – bowled by Joe Leach to become the only man to be dismissed twice in the match – put a cherry on top of their efforts, and allowed Libby and his team-mates to “walk away with a smile on our face … it almost feels like a win”. It’s safe to conclude that Essex’s opposite countenances rather concurred with the result.
Resuming the final day on 141 not out, Libby had all but saved the game in his seventh-wicket stand with Ed Barnard, but against such serial champions, no side trailing by 140 overnight would be wise to take too many liberties. And so, when Barnard was finally bowled by Dan Lawrence to end a stand of 244, Libby made it his mission to grind out a further 39 runs from 127 balls, spread over two of the driest, most soul-sucking sessions ever countenanced.
Aside from a swiped six over wide long-on off Simon Harmer – a shot so startling that the gentlemen of the press were forced to turn to the ECB’s live stream to confirm that, yes, it had actually happened – arguably the most exciting moment of Libby’s innings came in the moments after he left the pitch, with the county scoreboard claiming that his innings had spanned a Championship record 724 minutes. It soon transpired that a software glitch had failed to deduct the lunch break from Libby’s time at the crease, and Gallian was able to breathe a deep sigh of relief.
For this was a red-inker written in the blood of his victims. Cook’s surging efforts were but a fever-dream as he was finally put out to pasture with figures of 4 for 100, after nearly 30 subsequent overs of fruitless yakka, and even the mighty Harmer was cut down to size on a pitch that, at the very least, forced him to demonstrate the levels of control to which young English spinners must aspire if they are to cope with the unfair demands placed on them by the season’s circumstances.
Harmer did at least dock Worcestershire’s tail – including Dillon Pennington for a career-best 56 from No. 10 – to return the serviceable figures of 3 for 121, at an economy rate a shade over 2. But his 61.3-over stint was the longest of his county career, and second only to the 69 overs he sent down for Warriors against Cape Cobras in November 2016. For context, that performance had come on the same Newlands slagheap where Ben Stokes had belted 258 from 198 balls in that same year’s England Test.
Would that we could be delivered a similar volley of fireworks in this contest. Over Libby’s dead body. Showing the admirable levels of restraint that Essex’s former coach and current England head honcho, Chris Silverwood, has now taken to demanding from his Test hopefuls, Libby resisted the temptation to chase his double-century, or even a career-best – that remains the 184 he made against Glamorgan in the Bob Willis Trophy last summer. Instead he set his sights for survival. An Ahmedabad minefield might have asked a few more questions of a tight but front-foot dominant technique, but really, there’s no quibbling with his first-class record since arriving at Worcestershire for the 2020 season – 639 runs in six matches at 71.00. Much more of this, and it would be rude not to mention him in dispatches, at the very least, for higher honours.
And so, with Libby’s end of the pitch under lockdown, it was Pennington who took the relative liberties, as he came closer than most to enlivening the final afternoon. In the manner of all the best tailenders, he cashed in on a wayward sighter from Ben Allison to flick a first-ball four off his hip, and duly assured that his eye was in, proceeded to bosh Allison’s follow-up clean through the covers for another boundary. There was no looking back from there.
Ten fours in all rained from Pennington’s bat (or drizzled, in the wider match context, much like the third-day weather) until he perished with the same misplaced confidence with which he had begun – a tonked pull through midwicket gave the impression that he’d got the measure of Harmer, but retribution followed in the same over, as he toppled over on another long-levered heave, to be smartly stumped by Adam Wheater.
“Is there much more of this?”, as the Brentwood Gazette copy-takers might once have said of such a singularly dull day. Thankfully there wasn’t. At 4.23pm, with Cook already done and Nick Browne and Tom Westley going through the motions, the umpires feinted towards their light meters under the pretext of a marginally mischievous cloud, and could barely stand for the players queuing up for handshakes. The season is up and running in a gloriously anachronistic fashion. Let’s do this all again on Thursday.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket
(With Inputs from ESPN)
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