Essex 16 for 1 trail Warwickshire 166 (Bresnan 50, Siddle 6-38) by 150 runs
Huddled beneath a flimsy canopy at the Hayes Close End, in a poised-for-action outline uncannily similar to that of Scrat, Ice Age’s perma-frozen sabre-toothed squirrel, there would appear to be some long-lost lumps of immoveable organic matter at the Cloud FM County Ground.
Forgotten by the winds of time and the rains of desolation, outnumbered by Chelmsford’s overkill of underemployed stewards, and undeterred by the futility of the long-range forecast, they cling instead to cricket’s oldest adage, that the umpires’ decision about the likelihood of a resumption of play is final.
And so, with “Gunner” Gould still hedging his bets at 5pm on the second afternoon, after more than four hours of inactivity and with winter coming so fervently that Jon Snow was already deep in hibernation, still they loitered, stretching for that elusive shaft of sunlight that would allow them to break their icy bonds and resume their quest for that one perfect nut. As it were.
Rarely has the lot of a county supporter seemed so lonely. Chelmsford’s concourse right now is a maze of futile detours, the sort of forest of deserted roadworks that once persuaded John Major to set up a national cones hotline. Endless channels of crowd-control barriers, syphoning the non-existent hordes to their various and inviolable destinations – and who knows to what end, given that some of us have traversed entire capital cities and mingled with all manner of be-plagued masses, to get to the gates of the Fortress.
Fans? Turn right. Media? Straight ahead, but filter to your left as you do so. Players? Plough on through the middle but don’t dare touch the sides. It’s impractical, unworkable, and entirely out of keeping with the bucolic traditions of county cricket. Oh, and don’t forget your picnic because you’re a prisoner for the rest of the day, and the tea-bags are already rationed. God forbid you should be allowed out at lunchtime to cross-pollinate in the Moulsham Street farm shop, and render your morning temperature tests redundant.
None of this is Essex’s fault, clearly. They cannot be blamed for the cramped dimensions of their venue, nor for the nonsensically confused Covid policies that have allowed snooker’s crowds to share the same canned air at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield before any outdoor gatherings, let alone Parkrun. And they certainly can’t be blamed for possessing antiquated architecture that has scarcely altered in the 50-odd years since Warwickshire’s Supporters Association (no, really) lent the club the funds to buy their own ground after years of nomadic penury.
This lack of overheads has, for the most part, played to Essex’s favour in these locked-down times. Not for them the sort of eye-watering losses that Surrey reported earlier this week – £1.2 million in the red for 2020-21 with an eight-figure collapse in turnover, thanks to the reallocation of a Test match and the closure of their myriad banqueting suites. By contrast, the cancellation of a few nets sessions in Goochie’s indoor school and the lost revenue from a few speed-awareness courses in the Scrutton Bland Premier Suite was never going to make much of a difference to the bottom line of county cricket’s premier red-ball outfit.
The inability to bring back a workable crowd, on the other hand… well, that is a different matter. Who knows what awaits come June 21 and the prospective lifting of the government’s remaining Covid restrictions. But right at the moment, Chelmsford’s crowd of 200 – less than a quarter of the capacity at Derbyshire, the next least-workable venue, and barely a graze on Surrey’s welcome-home figure of 4,000 – is a slow puncture of a scenario.
It costs the club more to marshall their hardy few than they can ever hope to recoup on either the gate or their one desultory snack stall. And have any of these patrons actually enjoyed their return to the county plein air after 600 days of stasis? Your guess is as good as mine, as we can’t even get within hollering distance. And I’ll bet the wifi in that far-distant corner of the ground wasn’t strong enough to support live streaming either. I doubt they even had Darren Stevens’ Canterbury tonkings to raise an envious grin.
Still, at least the Essex faithful had their 15 minutes in the morning session. A passage of play as distant and discombobulating as a fever dream, in which Tim Bresnan made his second fifty of the season, Peter Siddle celebrated his county cap with his county-best figures of 6 for 38, and Warwickshire lost three wickets for no runs in seven balls to tumble from 159 for 7 overnight to 166 all out.
It wasn’t the ideal scenario for a side that had elected to bat first, and some way short of Dom Sibley’s bullish insistence that 200 could be a competitive total if “Bressie Lad” was able to land a few blows upon the resumption. Unfortunately he was out of support almost before he could get going.
Siddle needed just four balls to bring up his five-for, as Paul Walter’s dive at point scooped up a limp back-cut from Danny Briggs, and he had six in the same over, as Liam Norwell lost his off stump first ball. And before Bresnan himself could take the Stevens route, he was gone as well, supremely dispatched for an even fifty, twice Cook-ed like a biscuit as Alastair clung at first slip, on behalf of the little chef, Sam.
There was time before the apocalypse for Olly Stone to crank down four overs of Test-ready #wheels, and for Norwell to atone for his batting by nicking Nick Browne’s outside edge for 4. Oh, and Sir Alastair served up that perfect nut – a glorious cover drive, more perfect in its functionality than anything we’ve witnessed all week, most particularly the return-to-stadium provisions. The fact that the shot rolled out towards his smattering of diehards was an added bonus. There was little else to warm their frozen cores.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket