Essex (60-2) trail Somerset (209) by 149 runs
A force behind point against Craig Overton, off the back-foot as usual, was Alastair Cook’s first scoring stroke since he resigned as England’s Test captain in February - and the first stage of what England would love to be the most prolific phase of his record-breaking career.
Thereafter Cook’s form was little less than purple as he scored an unbeaten 39 and batted twice as fluently as anyone else on a day when 12 wickets fell on a used, scruffy-looking pitch designed for Somerset’s spinners. His comeback might not send shock-waves through Australia yet, but the signs could not have been more promising that England’s ex-skipper is in the right frame of mind to make a success of life back in the ranks, doing what he does best.
Seldom, if ever for England, has Cook struck four fours off a bowler’s first seven balls as he did when Jamie Overton came on, pitching too short or full. The secret was that Cook was well-balanced at the crease, not falling over to the offside, and physical poise is the spouse of mental equilibrium.
Cook cover-drives - or least he gets bat on ball when cover-driving - only when everything is synchronised, and he reeled off several prime examples against Lewis Gregory and Jamie Overton, belying his reputation as a handsome fellow who scores ugly runs. As for the spinners, including Jack Leach with his revised and smoother action, they never had a sniff of Cook’s wicket.
The other evidence on Cook’s first day back was encouraging too. Far from disillusioned, he looked refreshed and keen in the field. Cook ran back out to bat after a half-hour stoppage for bad light; he fielded alertly not only at slip but, for a change, gully; and he - though the most senior Test cricketer England have had, with his 140 caps - jogged between overs with the helmet to save the wicketkeeper trouble. Dutiful. Cook has ever been dutiful.
Cook caught one slip catch, offered by Marcus Trescothick, and initially palmed but recovered to catch a second. The first would have done credit to a spring lamb as he had to dive full stretch and low to his right. All told, Cook gave the impression it would be a while yet before he focusses full-time on his own lambs.
Part of the “stagnation”, as Cook himself called it, in the England team last year was attributable to their poor fielding - not the ground-fielding but the slip-catching. Cook himself dropped a couple of straightforward slip catches in India, the first damaging England’s chances of winning the Rajkot Test, the second their chances of drawing in Chennai - and he was offered only five chances in all. So England should benefit in this way too from Cook no longer being distracted by captaincy.
Two other left-handed opening batsmen of international status batted, but neither so fluent as Cook. Trescothick, after a presentation for his 25 years of Somerset service, played several handsome drives but was also more impulsive than usual - it is being said the prospect of making one more first-class century, to surpass Harold Gimblett’s record of 49 for the county, is weighing upon him. Dean Elgar, who will open for South Africa in July, is much more organised than in his three games for Somerset in 2012.
The kindest to be said about Somerset’s total of 209 is that it reflected the fact this is their first championship game of the season. Or it may be that county cricketers are simply unaccustomed to facing so much spin in April. It was a nippy day, the clouds on the Quantocks refusing to budge, and around the country wickets tumbled in much cooler weather than the opening weekend. But most of the Somerset dismissals were self-inflicted.
Neither of Essex’s spinners - who took five wickets for 68 runs from 35 steady overs - was a young English spinner. Stephen Harmer took 20 Test wickets for South Africa with his offbreaks. Back in 1999 Ashar Zaidi made his first-class debut as an opening batsman for Islamabad and fifth-change bowler, but a left-arm spinner ranked 50th in Pakistan is going to be one of the best in England.