Masterchef has become one of the hardy perennials of British life. And here Essex’s own version, Alastair Cook, has dominated the Bob Willis final – just as he did against Somerset at the end of last season in more taxing conditions at Taunton.
Cook struck his 67th first class century and one of his most fluent. When he was finally dismissed by Lewis Gregory just before the close he had scored 172 out of an Essex total of 266 for 6. By mid afternoon when he was cover-driving sweetly and frequently, a shot that indicates he really is in princely form, it looked as if he was having a glorified net, a masterclass for all the young batsmen in the Somerset side, who were trying to keep warm as a piercing cold wind swept across Lord’s. Every delivery seemed to meet the middle of Cook’s bat. There were 26 boundaries all around the ground.
He overshadowed every other batsman in the match, scoring faster than any of them. Somerset supporters must have wished that he took his new broadcasting duties rather more seriously. These may have been the first runs that Cook has scored to be visible live on the BBC. But there was another curiosity about this innings – its elegance, not something we have always associated with Cook. It may be that a summer watching Rory Burns and Dominic Sibley at the top of England’s order prompts such thoughts. Yet witness the Cook pull shot against Somerset’s quickest bowler, Craig Overton, and see a stroke of grace and purity; his square cut has always adhered to the textbook and has always been a natural process but in this knock the cover drives purred to the boundary with rare silkiness, more Graeme Pollock than Rory Burns.
A reliable indication of his dominance comes from the remarkably high proportion of Essex’s runs scored by Cook. The rest of the batsmen looked distinctly mortal by comparison. Conditions were not great for a fielding side; it was cold even though the sun was out; the wind was gusting. There was no swing for the bowlers and just a limited amount of movement when the ball was new. Moreover the pitch lacked the pace for the edged delivery to be guaranteed to reach the slip cordon without bouncing.
One edge that did carry came from Nick Browne’s bat which allowed Overton to take a good low catch off the bowling of Gregory. But it was another 51 overs before Somerset could conjure another wicket. Tom Westley dug in alongside Cook as well as producing a few of his trademark clips on the leg side. This pair batted all through a barren afternoon for Somerset and it seemed that Essex were guaranteed a vital first innings lead.
However as Cook looked on calmly Essex stuttered just after tea. Westley clipped a leg-stump delivery from Tom Lammonby to Abell at mid-wicket and then Gregory intervened decisively. First Dan Lawrence departed to a mistimed pull shot which lobbed to square leg, a soft dismissal for such a talented player. Then Paul Walter, pushing forward and looking for the ball rather than watching it, was lbw to his first ball.
The flurry of wickets prompted Essex’s senior men to tread warily. Cook remained utterly composed and reined himself in a little since he was determined to ensure he was still there to counter the second new ball. Ryan ten Doeschate hung on for almost 22 overs whereupon he was lbw to Overton. Then to universal surprise Cook edged Gregory to second slip just before the close. With four wickets remaining Essex need 31 more runs for a vital first innings lead.