Paul Edwards experiences a hard day's night at Chelmsford for Tuesday's FPt20 quarter-final
I am sitting in the Press Box at the County Ground. Apart from stewards and the legion of people from Sky TV, the place is almost deserted. You might think that the atmosphere is almost indistinguishable from that before a four-day game, but that is absolutely not so.
The most obvious difference, of course, is that we all know that this is a Twenty20 quarter-final and it begins at 7.40p.m - rather as football matches do. Instead of listening to a symphony in four long movements, the 6,500 sell-out crowd will expect to be entertained by a compressed, operatic melodrama. Not for nothing are dismissals and boundaries in the shortest format accompanied by pop songs. The music sharpens the emotion, jacks up the tension and gets the crowd going.
It was therefore entirely appropriate that Heart radio played I Gotta Feeling by Black Eyed Peas and Don't Stop Believing by Journey when we were driving down from Nottingham. People who have no knowledge of these artistes will nevertheless have heard brief excerpts from their oeuvre if they have been to a Twenty20 game.
And now, at Chelmsford, the air is sticky and humid. Charles Colville has compared it to Sri Lanka. It feels as if we are heading for a major showdown and on this small, intimate, river-rounded, house-hugged ground I really have no idea quite what it will be like.
The air became heavier and we had a shower of rain which forced the players to abandon their warm-ups and sent them scurrying to the pavilion. Now we are having another shower and it is much heavier, serious rain in fact. The players remain out there though. I doubt any of them would welcome the idea of a bowl out. Even a delay until tomorrow would present its own problems: Essex are at Canterbury for a four-day game on Thursday and Lancashire are at Southampton.
The lights are coming on and it looks as though we will make a prompt start. Essex win the toss and opt to field. Conditions look bowler-friendly but this is a small gound on which scores are regularly chased down and this is perhaps what informed Foster's decision. Unusually, Glen Chapple admits that he would have bowled
Tom Smith's two fours lift the Lancashire supporters. The lights are on in the press-box, making it seem as though the cricket is taking place in a darkling gloom.
Well, maybe the gloaming was just heavy cloud. The rain has returned and the talk in the press box is of deadlines and hotel accommodation. Outside, the catering outlets are making a fair killing and there are lines of men waiting to buy lager. The queue for the gents is longer though ; is that what they call throughput ? The public address is playing Crazy by Gnarls Barkley, and I am reminded that Peter Roebuck once described cricket as a dry game in a wet land.
We restart with no loss of overs. It's going to be a late one and the first editions of some papers won't carry the result.
Improbably enough, Saj Mahmood is the new Shahid Afridi. The rain has been forgotten amid a Lancashire innings of 183-6 which included five sixes, two of them struck by Sajid Mahmood. One of the maximums lost the ball. Lancashire are in the box seats now - this is a ground on which Essex have already lost three times this seson - and one feels that only an hour of sustained brilliance from James Foster's top order batsmen can restore Essex's fortunes now. Bopara's key to it all ? For what it's worth I think Lancashire are going to the Rose Bowl on August 14th.
Well, you know what happened; my reputation as a pundit takes another blow but that really couldn't matter less at the moment. Walker and Pettini took Essex near to victory with that hour of sustained brilliance I talked about.
But Bopara wasn't key at all. The limping Chapple got him early on. Foster finished the job. Amid it all, there was a bad injury for Moore, that worrying strain of some sort for Chapple and niggles for others. As the home side approached their target, the roars of "Essex, Essex," rolled around the county's home. Oh for a home quarter-final and some dry weather to play it in. But that's a pathetic, needy little idea.
A final thought: This game finished at 11.16p.m ; it is surely the latest time that county cricket has ever been played. Nearly 39 years ago David Hughes tucked into John Mortimore and won a Gillette Cup semi-final for Lancashire. The game finished, I think, at about 8.55 p.m That was an epic and this match at Chelmsford was another. At the end of it, Lancashire are not going to the Friends Provident Finals Day and the game at Hampshire - ironically, at the ground which will host the showpiece Lancashire will miss - has assumed a significance beyond its impact on the County Championship. That game begins in less than 36 hours.
Photos: PA Images