Cricket: Essex break cloud cover

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Nottinghamshire 409 and 1 for 1

Essex 153 and 422

JOHN STEPHENSON, even in his dreams, is not the most elegant batsman on the county circuit. But beyond the cloud of introspection that can sometimes surround him, there is a hidden entertainer.

Perhaps it was the enormity of Essex's task that allowed him to relax and reveal this side yesterday, as he punched his way towards and way beyond his first century of the season. As he gained in confidence he took to rushing the bowling, before deciding whether to smother or drive, whereas earlier in the day he had waited for safe boundary opportunities. He found a few - his innings of six and three- quarter hours included 19 fours and two sixes, and when he carved Kevin Evans to backward point Essex were 108 ahead.

Stephenson's efforts meant that Essex fought their way back from a hopeless position to a very difficult one. As they climbed the mountain necessary to extend the game into Monday, willing sherpas for Stephenson were found in Jonathan Lewis, Nick Knight and Ronnie Irani, comfortably the top scorer in Essex's brief first innings. An exhilarating evening knock by Mike Garnham, rushing to fifty in spite of protecting the tail, continued the climb in Essex fortunes.

After its thundery overnight sweat, the Valentine's Park wicket looked attractive to spin on a morning that began murky and threatening. Indeed, play commenced with four bulbs burning on the pavilion light meter. Over the first two days the visitors had pushed Essex to the ropes, thanks to a return to form and fitness by skipper Tim Robinson, a three- wicket burst after Friday lunch by Chris Lewis, and a cheap four-wicket bag for the left-arm spinner Andy Afford.

After quick spells from Lewis, Evans and Greg Mike, Robinson turned to his tweakers Afford, Jimmy Adams and Mike Field-Buss. They worked their way through the top half of the order and the seamers bounced back in the late afternoon, but at no stage was taking wickets a formality.

Nottinghamshire ought to gain maximum points tomorrow, but it is a pleasure to watch a batting side insist, throughout a long day, that this was not the three-day match it once seemed, and Robinson's wicket during their one-over reply gave further hope to Essex.