Kent 122 for 1 (Compton 47*) trail Essex 514 (Critchley 132) by 392 runs
And yet, on each occasion, Critchley had been instrumental in battling back from that initial adversity – with vital runs and wickets in an unlikely 125-run win on the former occasion, and then with twin innings of 64 and 83 to grind out a draw. Such were the circumstances that made his 1000-run haul last summer all the more impressive, and why – during a mightily impressive century on Essex debut – he looked like a man thoroughly at ease with the expectations of his new surroundings.
“It wasn’t even 11 o’clock yet!” Critchley recalled of that 2019 scramble for pads. “It was definitely a lot more chilled this time. Chef [Alastair Cook] is the best in the business, and Browny [Nick Browne] is up there among English openers. Westley, Lawrence … it’s a pretty good line-up to come behind. Hopefully I can wait up there with a coffee for a long time to come.”
The second morning dawned brighter and less breezy than the first, and briefly it seemed the pitch had woken up in a more playful mood too. After an all-run four to get his juices pumping first-ball, Tom Westley lasted just six overs before Jackson Bird lured him outside his eyeline with some extra zip off the deck, and suddenly, with that slump now extended to 5 for 68 in 20.2 overs, Essex were in some danger of squandering their first-day efforts.
No bad moment then, for the club’s two new boys to come together in circumstances that might have been designed to test their worthiness to join such a trophy-harvesting outfit.
Quite why Adam Rossington is here at all remains an issue laced with innuendo, following Northamptonshire’s last-ditch decision to strip him of the captaincy and his even more 11th-hour loan move south-east – a situation described as “disappointing” in a notably peevish press release from his old club.
But from the outset of this innings, Rossington rippled with pugnacity as he brought up Essex’s 300 with a punch through the covers off Bird, before dismissing Nathan Gilchrist with a firm flick through long-on, his bottom hand whipping through the stroke in a manner not unlike his Northants forebear, Allan Lamb.
Matt Quinn was then dispatched through the covers for another boundary before the pièce de Rossington’s résistance – back-to-back straight drives, the first with the top hand guiding the stroke to its target with a “yes sir” flourish, à la Jack Nicklaus at Augusta in ’86.
The partnership had reached 65, and the total was past 350, before the spell was broken by that man Darren Stevens, rumbling in for his 18th over, and opening his account for the season in typically sleight-of-hand fashion, as Rossington, on 41, played down the line of what he thought to be off stump, only to lose that same pole with some devious late jag.
Critchley, by this stage, had 34 unfussily compiled runs to his name from 79 balls – his tall and steady stance backed up by an uncomplicated technique that, crucially, grants him that extra split-second for decision-making. And as Adam Wheater came out to join him, Critchley’s decision was to accelerate smoothly into the afternoon session, with the final 98 runs of his knock coming from precisely 100 balls.
His uptick in tempo began with a rare blemish, a nick past the slips for four off Gilchrist, but thereafter every stroke that he played was delivered on his own terms. Bird over-pitched, and was crashed down the ground; Stevens offered width, and was biffed on the up through the covers. Critchley’s fifty came up with a firm pull, hoisted in front of square, and thereafter he embarked on a series of cute dinks through third man, as Matt Milnes and Quinn were picked off with soft hands.
Wheater was for the most part content to play the holding role, though he too caught the mood with a brace of slaps through the covers as Quinn offered him too much width. But on 37, a change of angle did the trick, as Quinn this time used that width to his advantage, pushing the ball across Wheater’s bows to lure an inside-edged hack into his stumps, and end a seventh-wicket stand of 94.
Critchley, by now, was in no mood to stand on ceremony. On 92, he marched to his hundred with two sublime drives in three balls, twice striding to the pitch to thump Quinn through long-off, before peeling off his helmet and saluting all four corners of another amply filled ground.
And as Essex’s total stretched towards 500 and a tea-time declaration drew nigh, he turned up the tempo a further notch, clouting Tawanda Muyeye’s offspin inside-out over long-off for six before depositing a Gilchrist short ball over midwicket. With partners running out, Critchley was last man out for 132 – five short of a career-best, but with his horizons surely feeling broader now than at any previous stage of his burgeoning career.
“The way the team is set up, it’s nice to go out like that and play our natural game, backed to play how we want to play,” Critchley said. “I played a lot against Ross [Adam Rossington] over in the East Midlands so nice to be out there with him. But there’s hundreds all the way down, with Wheats at 7. We’re capable of putting big scores on like this or post challenging scores on wickets that do a bit more.”
Kent’s tough time in the field could have longer-term ramifications too, with Joe Denly pulling up sharply with a suspected hamstring strain while chasing down a drive. Jack Leaning is also hamstrung, and Zak Crawley and Sam Billings are absent for differing reasons, Kent were already down to the bare bones of their batting strength before Daniel Bell-Drummond fell lbw to Sam Cook for 11.
But out of adversity came a counterpunching stand of no little skill and intent. Ben Compton, another man making his first appearance for a new club, took early lumps out of Jamie Porter in particular, picking off five of his seven fours in Porter’s first three overs before throttling back as the shadows lengthened. At the other end, Muyeye took the opposite approach with a flamboyant finish to his own day’s work. His unbeaten 43 included a brace of no-ball boundaries off a pumped up Mark Steketee, whose eight overs were expensive but hostile, and included a blow to Compton’s shoulder as he ducked into another short ball. Compton, however, knuckled down, and will resume the third day three runs shy of his own half-century.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket