It was a dazzling day by the standards of high summer let alone early April. Vapour trails were more numerous than clouds, and neither obscured the sun, while Lancashire turned the metaphorical heat on Essex, who have eight wickets left to bat through the final day without any chance of scoring 477.
The dominant figure was Alex Davies, 22, who added his name to the list of fine wicketkeeper-batsmen that England have at their command, like no other country, by scoring his maiden first-class century. Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler hold down the red-ball and white-ball positions for England, while Ben Foakes is coming up on the outside rail, but Davies has the skills to jockey - not to mention the physique of one - for their jobs.
Davies’s unbeaten 140 was a fine innings for a specialist opening batsman, never mind a keeper, as he had to face up to a barrage of bouncers from Neil Wagner. This pitch is slowish, not surprisingly for April, but bouncers from a left-arm fast bowler operating round the wicket are a rare form of attack, which Davies had not experienced in a match before.
“I don’t want to be a keeper who bats seven, I want to bat high up in the order because I believe I can, and it just fits best for the team if I open the batting,” said Davies, who had missed most of last season with a knee injury. “Done it a couple of years back, a little bit less experienced, not as good a technique, but I’ve always felt I can do it.”
Davies was hit on the helmet by Wagner before coming up with a clever response. Essex had six fielders spread round the legside, so Davies gave himself room to slash and cut, while his other boundaries largely came from reverse-sweeping the offspin of Simon Harmer.
“Luckily I’ve faced Wags in the nets and we’re really close,” said Davies of the fast bowler born in South Africa who plays for New Zealand, who has a remarkably similar Test record to Mitchell Starc’s, and who was Lancashire’s overseas player last season. “Different facing it in the game,” Davies conceded. “It was a good battle and I like battles like that.”
In the course of his maiden hundred Davies was dropped four times, so poor was Essex’s catching, which is the last thing needed by their thinly resourced pace bowling. And once Davies had progressed from his 97 at lunch to three figures, the cricket became less dazzling than the sunshine, as Dane Vilas aimed for a century on his Lancashire debut, and Essex’s occasional offspinners were milked for three or four singles an over, and the declaration was delayed past 3 pm, so that Lancashire had only seven overs of bowling before tea. It was all too much like the third innings of a Test match, too attritional for entertainment, and it would be surprising if there were more than ten people in the crowd of 1500 younger than Davies.
Essex would have lost four wickets by the close, not two, but Shiv Chanderpaul showed his age in dropping a catch at short extra-cover while Liam Livingstone dropped a slip catch of
Stephen Parry that was equally straightforward, Tom Westley the beneficiary both times. The quality of Lancashire’s pace attack was, according to Essex’s captain Ryan ten Doeschate, “a step up from anything we’ve experienced.”
Livingstone tried to make amends in three overs of presentable offbreaks. Last summer he bowled promising legspin but in Sri Lanka he was so versatile he bowled offspin to lefthanders and legspin to righthanders during the Lions’ one-day games. If he makes his ODI debut against Ireland next month as anticipated, he will bowl offspin, but it may be his legspin which England’s Test team need.