Essex 314 and 15 for 0 lead Surrey 240 (Sibley 48, Porter 4-51) by 89 runs
The sense that Surrey would face the sternest test of their title defence yet, a month into the new season, deepened on day two in Chelmsford, as Essex’s bowlers hounded the visitors between squally showers to secure what could be a vital first-innings lead.
When Ben Foakes dragged a drive into his stumps shortly after tea, giving Cook his second success of the innings, Surrey were 167 for 7 and almost 150 in arrears – but as the sun shone into the evening, they were grateful to their overseas allrounder, Sean Abbott, who helped eke out 68 for the eighth and ninth wickets.
We are long way from a coronation – at least in the vernacular of the Championship – but Surrey will know that they can’t avoid distractions this weekend as they look to maintain their position at the top of Division One. The weather forecast remains distinctly anti-monarchist but, with almost 80 overs bowled despite similar predictions on Friday, this game has moved on apace.
Surrey’s top order boasted five players in possession of England Test caps, yet no one managed to produce a better individual contribution than Sibley’s 48. He and Rory Burns put on 56 for the first wicket as Surrey started in good fettle despite the lurking cloud cover, with a number of runs coming via angled dabs towards the deep third boundary. Burns was dropped on 11, Dan Lawrence attempting a flying take from third slip when the chance might have been better left to Harmer at second; but a Chefs special saw off Surrey’s captain, Alastair Cook’s low take giving Sam Cook his first success.
Sibley’s duel with Harmer either side of two brief delays proved absorbing. In the livestream commentary box, Ray East, the left-arm spinner who took more than 1000 first-class wickets for Essex, opined that he would “quite like bowling to” Sibley, given the opener’s proclivity for shovelling the ball into the leg side. Moments later, Sibley launched the ball over the short boundary at deep midwicket for one of the three sixes he took off Harmer (whose offspin was, perhaps, more open to being targeted by in such a manner).
Surrey resumed on 80 for 1 when the weather cleared for a post-lunch restart of 2.30pm, but Sibley’s progress was halted by an injudicious drive at a wide-ish Bracewell delivery and his dismissal sparked a slide of 3 for 5 in six overs as Essex clawed their way back into contention. Jamie Smith could do little about the ball he received from Bracewell, which straightened wickedly on off stump to produce an edge through to the keeper, and Ollie Pope was then left to glare suspiciously at the surface after Porter cannoned one into his shin.
Will Jacks, whose disdainful treatment of Harmer at The Oval last summer helped turn a close-fought match Surrey’s way, attempted a similar counter in his first Championship appearance of the season, twice launching him over the leg side. However, Shane Snater produced another shooter – this time from the River End – to send Jacks on his way, and Cam Steel then further salved Harmer’s wounds by hoicking a dragged-down delivery straight to deep square leg on the stroke of tea.
That eight of Surrey’s batters reached double-figures but none managed a half-century hints at wastefulness, though the pitch clearly played its part and credit should go to Tom Westley’s adroit uses of his resources in ensuring the hosts have the edge at the midway point of this contest.
Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick
(With Inputs from ESPN)
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