Essex 272 for 4 (Browne 107, Cook 100) vs Kent
There’s a cutting on the press box wall at Chelmsford with a certain timeless quality. “Cook for England” states the back page of the Essex Chronicle from November 10, 2005, after the most promising opener in the country received the first of his international call-ups – as injury cover for Michael Vaughan on that winter’s tour of Pakistan.
Seventeen years, 64 first-class centuries, and one knighthood later, those words could now be framed as a question (“Cook for England?”), a demand (“Cook for England!”), or a plea (“Cook for England, pretty please? With sugar on top?”). For here, at the start of his 20th season of first-class cricket, was 266 balls-worth of further evidence – stretched over six hours of unflappable application – that the man who stepped down from Test duty as a national record-breaker remains as dryly addicted to run-making as ever.
For this was April … the alternative narrative. The one in which county cricket’s livid green seamers are lifeless with permafrost, and where icy cross-winds buffet the bowlers to such an extent that an extra five overs could have been factored in through aborted run-ups. In fact, those watching on the ECB’s (somewhat bouncy) live stream might have thought they had tuned back into Big Jet TV by mistake, and when Matt Quinn bailed out three times in an over, some might have figured that watching Jumbo Jets cock up their approach would be rather more fun in this weather.
“Me and Cooky batting isn’t going to bring the crowds to county cricket,” Browne joked afterwards. “It was a good day for concentration.”
And yet, the first part of that statement wasn’t strictly true. Despite the disconcerting rattle of the floodlights on their wobbly gantries, and the prospect of the sponsor’s tarpaulin breaking its moorings on the roof of the midwicket pavilion, a very healthy crowd – upwards of 1200 of county cricket’s hardiest – braved the chill and embraced the intermittent shafts of spring sunshine to welcome home a long-lost format.
For Essex haven’t had much of a chance to cement their red-ball mastery in recent seasons. The Bob Willis Trophy was more than just a consolation prize when Covid struck in 2020, but last year’s Division Two “title” was greeted with the disdain of a Champions League runner-up flinging their medal into the crowd. This, however, is more like it. Essex are back to the top flight that has been in suspended animation since their 2019 title was won, and notwithstanding Kent’s four-wicket rally with the new ball, they’ve opened their account with a statement of intent.
And yet, the pandemic did have one significant side effect. It is almost certainly the reason why Cook is still here at all, rather than tending to his new-born lambs or further sharpening those incisors as a media pundit, as he begins to discover that his wisdom is more likely to be heard when it is delivered with conviction.
“It’s been a bit of a stop-start three years, hasn’t it?” Cook said earlier in the week at Essex’s media day. “I never planned to do three years. But then Covid came along and it didn’t feel right, and then last year was a conference system and again it didn’t feel right. It’s a big commitment to do it with what goes on in the other parts of my life, but I genuinely enjoy turning up, and when you feel you can be competitive you might as well carry on.”
And so here he was, to the fore once more – that familiar angular stance, like a sculpture made of coathangers, pressing forward, rocking back, chopping hard and nudging off his hip like … well, like a county opener nudging the England selectors, ideally, but, beyond any equivocation, that ship has sailed.
And alongside him for 82 overs, his friend and acolyte Browne – and who’s to say that he can’t do some nudging of his own, given the Test team’s open-book status, and the clear run of opportunities between now and the New Zealand series in June.
Browne’s approach – tall, left-handed, risk-averse – is not dissimilar to Cook’s, albeit rather more smoothed at the corners, and between them they gave Kent’s toiling attack not a sniff until two loose drives at the Aussie import Jackson Bird – a bowler who must be sick of the sight of Cook in particular. The last time they met, on a Melbourne featherbed in December 2017, Cook walked away with 244, and Bird never played Test cricket again.
Up until that point, both men had produced chanceless knocks – although the look on Darren Stevens’ face after a lively lbw shout against Cook maybe begged to differ. County cricket’s elder statesman toiled to no avail for 14 typically economical overs, albeit eight of his 28 runs were served up in the space of his first four balls, as he twice offered Browne too much width for his favoured cut. Thereafter he knuckled down like the old pro that he literally is, confirming – much like Cook, in fact – that hunger remains the defining factor when gearing up for the season-long grind.
Cook found fewer freebies to help kickstart his innings – he made just seven runs in the first hour, but then more than doubled his output in two balls as Quinn strayed onto the leg side, and that rapacious ability to pounce on mistakes surged back into view. By lunch, he had made 34, with Browne already past a 109-ball fifty, but Cook picked up his tempo as Kent’s optimism waned in the mid-afternoon, and as he fairly sprinted into the 80s it seemed for a moment he would win the race to the century. But another of Browne’s compact punches down the ground soon settled that score.
A penny for Dan Lawrence’s thoughts as he watched this attritional masterclass playing out for the bulk of the day’s three sessions. His own England endeavours haven’t warranted any press-box cuttings just yet, but he’s the man in possession as the Test season approaches, and on the season’s eve, he had made it clear he planned to pick Cook’s brain in particular, to a bid to unlock the mental side of his burgeoning career.
Essex’s day was not without blemish, off the field either. The day began with a well-meaning but amorphous “moment of reflection”, with both teams lined up on the boundary’s edge to contemplate everything from Shane Warne’s death, to the war in Ukraine … to the contents of an Essex racism report that is rumoured to be close to seeing the light of day, but also seems to be at the centre of a row every bit as divisive as the one that has beset Yorkshire all winter long. Among the first-day attendees was Essex’s ex-chairman, John Faragher, who declined the club’s request that he lie low following his resignation for allegedly using racial language in a board meeting. However this one ends, it’s unlikely to end quietly.
Ultimately, all such matters belong on a spectrum of incidents that inform English cricket’s ongoing cultural revolution. The ground announcer’s amusingly self-conscious attempts to say “batter” instead of “batsman” was another reminder that habits, once ingrained, are hard to amend overnight. For better and very much for worse, the County Championship remains a bastion for doing things the old-fashioned way.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket