Essex victory hopes could rest on unbeaten Alastair Cook

Vic Marks at Taunton
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Alastair Cook will resume on four not out as his Essex side chase a victory target of 255.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: TGSPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Alastair Cook will resume on four not out as his Essex side chase a victory target of 255. Photograph: TGSPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

The fascination of this bizarre match has shifted after two days. On Friday, it all seemed to centre on a rare appearance at county level by the former England captain Alastair Cook. By Saturday night of far greater interest was who was going to win a topsy-turvy contest. It may be that Cook, the only batsman to reach 50, will have the decisive influence.

In this game the scorecard is no more trustworthy than a Southern Railway Sunday timetable. Twelve wickets fell on Friday, 18 wickets on Saturday. The obvious conclusion therefore is that the poor, victimised batsmen of these two teams have been exposed to another Taunton minefield. However, this would be an incorrect assumption.

The ball has turned moderately – in the guidance for Cricket Liaison officers, who have variously been described as pitch inspectors and referees in the past – a good pitch is allowed to spin “moderately” on the first day. But when Somerset’s batsmen subsided on a sunny, chilly afternoon, a solitary wicket fell to a spin bowler. Instead, they were utterly flummoxed by the left-arm pace of Neil Wagner of New Zealand. The adopted Kiwi recognised that if he ran up and bowled short balls at the majority of Somerset’s middle and lower they would get out.

Wagner took five for 17 from 34 balls and finished with six for 48 in the innings. Every wicket came from a short ball, usually at the body, which was also how Wagner snaffled his two victims in the first innings.

He directed those short balls skilfully and with some menace – though he is no Mitchell Johnson – but the response of the batsmen was woeful: an ugly agglomeration of ill-conceived and ill-executed strokes, though perhaps swats would be a more accurate description. Most of them holed out from motley parts of their bats to one of a ring of fieldsmen scattered on the leg-side.

It took a 50-run last-wicket partnership of sound judgment and, by the standards of the day, an extraordinary amount of commonsense, for Somerset to stretch their lead to 254. Craig Overton briefly declined to keep swishing at Wagner and eventually the lethal little paceman had to be rested. Meanwhile, the No11, Jack Leach, batted far better than all the other Somerset bowlers up the order put together, which reflects that this was soft batting gratefully exploited by Wagner.

So far this has been a good match for Leach. Badly mismanaged by the England and Wales Cricket Board over a winter when his confidence had been severely dented after taking 65 wickets last season, Leach started this match with the burden of having to prove himself again with a slightly remodelled action.

He was tossed the ball from the start and tested the former England captain from the River End in a manner that even Zafar Ansari might have struggled to emulate. Leach finished with two cheap wickets. When bowling to Cook a couple of edges escaped the hands of fielders as England’s opener was unable to rediscover the fluency of Friday night. This uncertainty now became evident at the other end where he was bowled off the inside edge by Lewis Gregory.

Thereafter, all of the bowlers imposed a stranglehold on the Essex batsman, who had at least had the decency to be dismissed in a variety of ways. Roelof van der Merwe also spun the ball effectively.

So the day ended as it began with Cook at the crease and a game to win. He struck his first ball majestically through the covers, survived one vociferous lbw shout (correctly so) and then calmly batted through to the close of a remarkably eventful day.

It has been an unpredictable game, a captivating one even if much of the cricket – especially from the batsmen - has been flawed. And it is hard to escape the notion that the size of Cook’s contribution will decide the outcome of the match.

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