Essex’s bid for a first County Championship pennant since 1992 was dented by a resilient Somerset on day one at Chelmsford.
The healthy Bank Holiday crowd hoped for a strong batting display after the hosts won the toss and chose to bat in the sunshine, but some poor shots and impressive fast bowling from Craig Overton and Paul van Meekeren saw Somerset bowl them out before tea for just 159.
With Alastair Cook and Tom Westley absent on England duty, Essex’s batsmen struggled for fluency throughout the day: no batsman made fifty, and only Nick Browne managed to occupy the crease for more than fifty balls.
Although leading seamer Jamie Porter led a fightback during the evening session, taking 4-27 in twelve brilliant overs, the visitors ended day one the happier of the sides, facing a deficit of 41 with five wickets in hand.
Van Meekeren, on Championship debut, removed both Varun Chopra and Dan Lawrence in a superb opening burst. The Dutch seamer impressed towards the back end of Somerset’s T20 Blast campaign, and continued to bowl with searing pace here, trapping Chopra lbw before Lawrence edged to slip driving expansively.
And when Overton’s change of ends brought about Ravi Bopara’s downfall before Adam Wheater was adjudged leg before off Tim Groenewald’s nagging swingers to leave the hosts 39/4.
Browne and captain Ryan ten Doeschate led something of a recovery, and if this game turns out to be a low-scoring thriller, Somerset may rue the forty minutes before lunch. Their captain, Tom Abell, brought himself on to bowl some wayward seamers, while Jack Leach extracted some turn but threatened little as the hosts went into the interval at 89/4.
But the visitors came out after lunch looking fired up. Overton ran in with purpose and aggression, and was rewarded with the wickets of both set batsmen. Ten Doeschate reluctantly departed after a conference between the umpires dismissed the idea that his edge had been a bump ball, and Browne carelessly top-edged a pull to van Meekeren, who took an athletic diving catch at square leg.
After James Foster edged to slip off Groenewald, the hosts were in disarray at 98/7, and despite some semblance of resistance from Mohammad Amir, who slashed his way to an unbeaten 20, Essex soon folded to 159 all out.
On a pitch that offered only limited help for seamers, Overton and van Meekeren’s four wickets apiece were a credit to the way they bowled: both pitched the ball up throughout the innings, and their success was fully deserved.
There was still plenty of work for Somerset to do. The four senior batsmen in their side – Trescothick, Hildreth, Abell and Davies – had scored under 1500 runs between them in the Championship before this game, at a combined average of 25.1, and Craig Overton looked a spot too high carded at number seven.
And their wobbly top order was exposed by the excellent Jamie Porter, who removed Trescothick and the obdurate Byrom cheaply either side of tea, and the visitors were three down for just twenty runs soon after the tea interval.
Mohammad Amir – while fast and economical – failed to create the hatful of chances that the Chelmsford faithful has become so accustomed to, and Hildreth and Abell went about the rescue mission.
Initially the pair scored only slowly – not until the 28th over did the innings run-rate pass two – but became increasingly fluent as the sun went in, with Hildreth punishing any width from the home attack.
But the ball after his partner reached his fifty, Abell’s loose shot off Porter drew an edge, before an ugly swat from Hildreth off the same bowler was snaffled at square leg.
Somerset need their long tail to wag tomorrow morning if they are to take a lead in this game, and with Simon Harmer bowling last on a dry wicket, it would seem that they need to do exactly that if they are to ease their relegation worries with a win.
Essex, meanwhile, know that with Lancashire in a strong position at Old Trafford, much improvement with the bat is needed if they are to maintain their healthy lead at the top of the division.
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