Even allowing for Essex’s tendency to collapse on occasions like an Edinburgh PFI school, not a pretty sight, that history should not prevent their passage to a comfortable victory against Gloucestershire on the final day at Chelmsford. They need another 59 runs with all wickets intact. The job is almost done.
Twice, Gareth Roderick, Gloucestershire’s new Championship captain, with support from Jack Taylor, stood between Essex and a three-day victory. When Roderick was seventh out with 19 overs remaining – plus the potential for an extra half-hour – and the lead was only 50, the chance to complete the job was a real one, but with nine down Taylor hit out with abandon, taking four sixes in total off Ravi Bopara and Graham Napier before holing out at long-on.
Essex were only 25 ahead at start of play with four wickets remaining, but they established a lead of 123 despite a Championship-debut 4 for 118 by the Yorkshire loanee Josh Shaw.
Three Gloucestershire wickets in his first two overs with the new ball enabled Jamie Porter to set them on course for victory. There has been much about Essex’s cricket in the first three days to encourage the thought that they are serious promotion contenders. Many have regretted such statements in the past, but Alastair Cook, an England captain with a big part to play in the first month of the season, is just one observer who has already sensed “a good vibe around the place.”
Essex are bracing themselves for the retirement of David Masters, an inevitability signalled perhaps by his omission for the first Championship match of the season. But while one county stalwart wonders when he will have to return to building full time, at 37, a replacement hod carrier might have appeared with perfect timing.
Porter, like Masters, might never have the pace to play for England, but again there were indications that he can have a fine county career. There remains an inconsistency about him, at 22, but he has shown against Gloucestershire a knack for the wicket-taking ball.
Wicketkeeper catches with his second and third ball started the process. Cameron Bancroft’s shuffle from the crease indicated his displeasure at the decision, but Ian Cockbain indubitably got a good one. After Matt Dixon nipped in to have Chris Dent caught at square leg in his second over, Porter struck again in his fifth over when he spreadeagled Hamish Marshall’s stumps.
By tea, Gloucestershire were six down, Benny Howell falling weakly at mid-off and Kieran Noema-Barnett winkled out by Bopara. Bopara hunted down two lower-order victims after tea before Taylor imposed a sense of reality on a beautiful sunlit evening in which a lone canoeist paddled down the Can and birds dared again to nest in one of the red postbox-sized rubbish bins behind the bowlers’ arm – an invitation for a smouldering fag end in their midst if ever there was one.
Porter took 50 wickets for Essex last season when a coach on his way out, Paul Grayson, hailed him as one of the most rejuvenating features of the season. Fears were expressed for Essex when Reece Topley departed to Hampshire – and he is a fine bowler – but he took seven. Sometimes it is the unsung county performer who is the most valuable.
Porter, a product of the Essex League, first with Fives and Heronians then with Chingford, had all but given up hopes of a first-class career when Essex came calling at the end of the 2014 season. He will have to cope with flatter decks this season as the ECB toss changes take effect, but signs in this game are that it will not be beyond him.
The solidity of Dixon could be a good foil, and Essex will have highest hopes for the New Zealander Matt Quinn. Both Dixon and Quinn have signed documentation with the ECB committing themselves to England, meaning that in future they would have to play in their native country as an overseas player.
Essex flew the flag at half-mast in memory of Adrian St John, the cricketer who was killed during a robbery in Trinidad. St John was captain of the Chris Gayle Academy with which Essex have links.