Worcestershire 350 for 6 (Libby 141*, Barnard 116*, Wessels 54, Cook 4-77) trail Essex 490 for 9 dec by 140 runs
There’s been a fetching pink beanie sitting on the wall by the traffic lights on New Writtle Street for three days now. It’s nearly new, to judge by its lack of contours, although perhaps a touch too Middlesexy in hue for these parts. But much like Jake Libby and Ed Barnard throughout their indomitable seventh-wicket stand of 205, it seems to have hit upon an unlikely strip of Chelmsford real estate, and decided that – come wind, rain or shine – there’s nowhere else that it would rather be.
The beanie was still there at the close – of course it was. More improbably, so too were Worcestershire’s incumbents, as they warmed to their task on the coldest, gloomiest day of the season so far, to turn a position of pre-ordained defeat into one from which Sunday’s probable stalemate will feel like a hugely significant victory. A punch of the gloves as the pair strode off at the close underlined the extent to which they had changed the narrative of this contest, and that there’s only one team left that’s likely to derive any enjoyment from its denouement.
For Libby, of course, this was business as usual. Of all the batsmen in last year’s Bob Willis Trophy, only Sir Alastair Cook managed more than his haul of 498 runs at 55.33, and Cook only vaulted that tally with his commanding century in the final. But in battling his way to the close on 141 not out from 369 balls, Libby reaffirmed his credentials by putting Cook himself – for much of his innings a chilly onlooker from the slip cordon – through the sort of ordeal that all the best openers should aspire to inflict on their opponents.
Barnard, by contrast, came with rather less warning of what was in store. Despite his youthful promise – not least as a white-ball allrounder – a previous best first-class score of 75, and a grand total of four centuries in any representative format (most recently a Birmingham Premier League knock for Shrewsbury in 2017) did not exactly scream of the sort of durability that Worcestershire were crying out for, especially when he arrived at the crease at a listless 145 for 6.
Worcestershire were still almost 200 runs shy of saving the follow-on at that moment, and if Libby’s dour half-century was providing a steadfast imitation of Tom Westley’s first-day efforts, no-one other than the been-and-gone Riki Wessels had shown any intention of doing likewise. Wessels had thumped and ground his way to a punchy 54 in a fifth-wicket stand of 89 to hint that resistance wasn’t futile after all. But it was surely going to have to be the second innings, with the threat of imminent defeat to focus the minds, where Worcestershire made their stand.
But this was not to be the day that Essex’s frustrated champions had in mind. Not after their surging finish to the second day’s play, when Sam Cook’s biting seam movement had shredded the top of Worcestershire’s reply; not after Cook’s fourth-ball breakthrough on the most bitter, wintery morning of the match had taken his personal tally to four wickets in the space of 12 balls. And certainly not in the first over after lunch, when Ben Cox dropped to one knee for a wild sweep that gifted Simon Harmer the first of what, presumably, will be another bucketload of first-class wickets this season, and brought the diffident Barnard out to join his senior partner.
But if there was one clear difference between the approaches of Essex and Worcestershire in their two innings, it was in the willingness of the latter to go from their strokes – the life lessons, no doubt, of 157.4 overs of hard yakka across the first two days. For all of Worcestershire’s seamers – not least Barnard himself, whose 3 for 67 looks even better in hindsight – there had been a distinct lack of April zip off the deck, and what few edges they had found had been falling consistently short of the cordon.
So Barnard himself chose the pro-active route, trusting himself to aim through the covers with relative impunity. Sure enough, it wasn’t until late in the afternoon session that Essex chose to plug a third man through which more than 50 runs had whistled in the course of the innings, with not a single catchable opportunity among them, beyond Adam Wheater’s second-ball drop of Daryl Mitchell right at the top of the innings.
Essex are not used to being made to toil for their wickets on home soil – in three home fixtures in last season’s Bob Willis Trophy, only one team, Kent, managed to post more than 200 in any of their six innings, and even they were rolled aside for 112 second-time around. And their frustrations were epitomised when Sam Cook, in his penultimate over of the day, attempted a shy at Barnard’s stumps in his followthrough, but shanked his throw so badly that it almost took out Alastair Cook’s shins at slip before streaking to the boundary.
Both men brought up their centuries in near-identical fashions – a pair of flicks off the pads on 98, and a pair of urgent scampers back for the second run that brought a pair of throaty roars from the visiting dressing rooms. Barnard in particular bore a look of wonder in his eyes as he contemplated his achievement. It was, he admitted afterwards, “a monkey off his back” to broach three figures given his obvious talent, and his stated ambition, given his current age of 24, to become a genuine allrounder at 5 or 6 in the order.
“When there is someone at the other end who is confident it makes it easier,” he added. “It gives you the calmness and the confidence you can do it as well. It was a case of batting as long as we can and trying to save the game. We saw it was a good pitch and knew it could be done, so we just had to get a head start and get on with it.”
For Essex, this likely failure to record their habitual home victory is far from panic stations despite the rejigged format for this season – especially given the ECB’s decision to up the points from five to eight for a draw. But, for all of the resolve shown by Libby and Barnard, the lack of life in the surface is already a concern given the truncated group stage.
“We knew leading up to the season that the ground was particularly dry for this time of year,” admitted Anthony McGrath, the head coach.
“Firstly, credit to Worcestershire. The partnership between Libby and Bernard was really good. They batted well. But there hasn’t been a lot in the wicket all game. We needed to make in-roads with the new ball, which we managed last night, but as we’ve seen through the three days that if someone has got through that then it is a pretty benign pitch.
“People talk about us not scoring enough runs at home but in this match we have scored a lot of runs but haven’t taken the wickets. That’s the way it goes sometimes.
“There is still a day left so I wouldn’t be going anywhere yet. As we have seen over the last couple of years anything can happen here. We still have a healthy lead and if we can go bang-bang in the morning then we will be trying to push the game forward.”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket