Essex reasserted their status as English cricket’s red-ball standard bearers by claiming the inaugural Bob Willis Trophy after a five-day draw against Somerset was settled on first-innings runs at Lord’s.
The Chelmsford side are the reigning county champions, having also taken the honour in 2017, and now have a third title in four years after doing just enough to edge what could be the first in a new tradition of first-class season deciders.
Somerset declared early in the morning to leave their opponents a target of 237 while giving themselves 80 overs to claim all 10 wickets.
In the end neither side were able to do enough for an outright win – Essex finishing on 179 for six after a 27-over stand between Ryan Ten Doeschate (46) and Adam Wheater (14no) killed off their opponents’ hopes.
Essex knew they held an ace up their sleeve in the form of their 36-run lead from the first half of the game that effectively acted as a tie-breaker.
With that in mind the key performance over the past week belonged to Sir Alastair Cook, whose magnificent 172 on day three almost single-handedly allowed Essex to overhaul Somerset’s 301.
While there was no long-awaited first-class triumph for the Taunton outfit – that drought goes on – they will leave St John’s Wood having seen young batsmen Tom Lammonby and Eddie Byrom make fine centuries, and Lewis Gregory finished with a remarkable match haul of eight for 124.
Gregory briefly gave Somerset hope that they might pull something special off when he had Cook caught behind for 31 in the afternoon to leave Essex 68 for three – a decision which left the former England captain aghast – but it was not to be.
Jack Leach took three wickets, his first in competitive cricket since his last Test cap for England 10 months ago, and Craig Overton bowled aggressively without much reward as the trail ran cold.
Somerset started the day on 227 for seven and put on another 45 in 8.1 overs before declaring and setting up the match.
By lunch they had made a couple of inroads, Nick Browne well held at third slip off Gregory’s second ball and captain Tom Westley lbw to Overton for a six-ball duck, to leave Essex 61 for two.
But while Cook remained in place Essex’s chances were boosted. He got off the mark with a straight four down the ground but came through a tricky period in the teens when Gregory and Overton came hard at him, appealing loudly for a pair of lbws and beating him a couple of times outside off.
Cook was still able to punish the loose balls and his dismissal shortly after the break was a big moment. Gregory beat him on the outside edge immediately before sending another one straight into Steve Davies’ gloves while the distinguished left-hander prodded outside off.
This time bowler and wicketkeeper both erupted in celebration as they won a decision that Cook was slightly late to detect and slightly loath to accept. He leant on his bat with crossed legs for a second or two before grudgingly walking away.
Somerset continued to believe when Leach made it 98 for four, Dan Lawrence lbw to a full one for 35.
Having spent most of the last 10 months injured, ill or an unused member of the England Test ‘bubble’ this was a welcome moment of release. He had another when Paul Walter fell leg-before for 21.
Essex had by now given up chasing the runs, leaving Ten Doeschate and Wheater to chew through 217 deliveries together before Leach dismissed the former just short of his half-century in the penultimate over for a final act of resistance.