Temptation to bowl first not universally successful on the first day of term

It was no less a cricket luminary than WG Grace who famously said, “When you win the toss, bat. If you are in doubt, think about it, then bat. If you have very big doubts, consult a colleague, then bat.”

When he said that, it may not have been a dull, overcast morning at Lords and he didn’t have had Tim Murtagh, Toby Roland Jones and Tom Helm pawing the hallowed but slightly damp turf, anxious to get the county season underway in the grandest manner against no less than former England captain and Essex opener Sir Alastair Cook.

Lords has seen many dramatic early season top order capitulations, the combination of heavy atmosphere and green top nibble playing into the hands of experienced craftsmen such as Murtagh. There certainly aren’t too many around with more experience at county level. Now entering his twenty third season and with 929 first class wickets, the ‘wily veteran’ has earned every epithet going to attest to his both his talent and his longevity.  “As I say every year, one more season” he had said when asked the perennial pre-season interview question “how long will you keep going?”

Toby Roland Jones, now Middlesex first class captain duly won the toss and, to no one’s surprise, chose to fly in the face of WG’s century old council and bowl. Being the other half of county cricket’s most senior strike force with a depth of experience at Lords will have added to his conviction and on seeing the toss news, county followers around the country will have anticipated a tough seasoning opening examination for Cook and his Essex colleagues.

For all the modern wisdom that eschews the convention of automatically batting first however, there will always be the more traditional cricket followers who shake their heads with knowing concern, hearing in their head’s Nasser Hussain’s voice still resonating as a ghostly echo from the Gabba in 2002 “We’’ll have a bowl”  England did. And it did not go well.

As it was, here at Lords to open the 2023 county season, there was no batting collapse, rather steady Essex progress punctuated by the odd wicket.  Over keen perhaps, even the 36 years of combined experience of Murtagh and Roland Jones took a while to shake off ‘first day of term’ rustiness. Cook and opening partner Nick Brown put on a relatively untroubled 38 before falling in immediate succession. Cook to a legside strangle off Roland Jones and Browne edging the very next ball to Robson at slip, misjudging the Murtagh nibble as he looked to punch through extra cover.

Almost inevitably, the drip drip drip of little April showers then beat a tune as they fell all around. The players beat a retreat for an early lunch but on the resumption, there was to be no Bambi like collapse from Essex as Dan Lawrence and Tom Westley batted with circumspect resolution rather than daring do, before finding pleasing fluidity of stroke as the day wore on, even under darkening clouds. Rain and bad light finally closed the day early with Esssex on 162 for 3, Westley having finally departed two short of his fifty.

Rain had a say almost everywhere, notably at Taunton where first day back to school had to be cancelled completely.

As the Ashes hoves into view there will be a number of batsmen up and down the country eyeing a potential Zak Crawley shaped hole to fill, although England’s management will deny there is one. Of those on display at Lords, clearly Sir Alastair has closed that chapter, but the likes of Dan Lawrence will hope they haven’t and he batted with great assurance having been given a life on 32 when dropped by Robson of Murtagh.

As toss winning captain’s everywhere weighed up the pros and cons of whether to bat or bowl, did the promised of early season help for bowlers transpire?

Steve Mullaney was the only captain to take the Grace option, for Notts at the Rosebowl, but ran into a rampant Mohammad Abbas whose 6/49 rattled his side out for just 180. Hampshire had made steady inroads for the loss of three wickets at the close.

Keaton Jennings was happy to ask Surrey to bat at Old Trafford and having been told that he needs to score heavy runs to get back in England contention, Rory Burns fluffed his lines.  Ben Foakes, looking over his shoulder for different reasons did not, solidly digging Surrey out of a hole and setting up Smith and Steele to take them towards a very healthy 340 for 7.

Proceedings had been severely curtailed at Cantebury, where Sam Billings inserted Northants, so Zak Crawley will have to wait for his opportunity to shine. Possibly not for too long however as Kent rapidly had Northants 89 for 7 before the early curtailment.

Marcus Harris and James Bracey showed Test qualities to keep Glamorgan at bay after they had chosen to field. Neither Worcestershire nor Leicestershire got the return from a bowl first decision that they might have hoped for at Derby or Headingley. At the latter, Dawid Malan reminded selectors he is no slouch against a red ball, albeit now in Division 2, but he was outshone by the splendidly named and youthful Finlay Bean’s debut ton as Yorkshire’s 285 for 3 left Leicestershire captain Lewis Hill hoping for a rather better second day back at the office.

On a day when all but one toss winning captain had elected to field, the Nasser Hussein Award for ’having a bowl’ though went to none other than Cheteshwar Pujara on his captaincy debut at Hove. Durham rattling along to 142 for 1 thanks in part to a sprightly 79 from Alex Lees.  Remember him? Solid contributions through the Durham order got them to 352 for 7 by the close to leave Pujara contemplating that English pitches and conditions may not be a book to purely judge by their cover.

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