If there was any doubt remaining that James Anderson would be given his England Test debut against Zimbabwe at Lord's next week it was surely removed here yesterday, when the 20-year-old Lancashire fast bowler claimed the first hat-trick of his fledgling career.
It was not just any hat-trick, either. Sandwiched between Darren Robinson fending to gully and Will Jefferson edging a short ball to the wicketkeeper came Nasser Hussain, pinned leg before wicket by a fine, inswinging yorker.
A similar delivery accounted for Pakistan's Yousuf Youhana during the World Cup in South Africa, from which Anderson emerged as England's leading wicket-take. It was just the kind of ball an England captain in need of a score does not want to receive when he has barely taken guard. Hussain's six innings so far this season have yielded a paltry 66 runs.
Anderson, exploiting a wicket that was damp at the start and offered sometimes bounce, is the youngest Lancashire bowler to take a hat-trick in a first-class game and the first since Mike Watkinson did so against Warwickshire at Edgbaston in 1992. It is the first such feat at Old Trafford since Dominic Cork's triple Test strike against the West Indies in 1995.
His dramatic breakthrough, with the last two balls of his fifth over and the first of his sixth, gave Lancashire the impetus to dismiss Essex, last season's Second Division champions, for 215 by mid-afternoon after the captain Ronnie Irani had won the toss and decided to bat first against his former county.
With Peter Martin equally effective when he took over from Anderson at the Stretford End, Essex sank to 95 for 7, Martin removing Paul Grayson and Irani with consecutive deliveries pitched short of a length and then trapping Andy Flower with a fuller ball, for which the former Zimbabwe captain was never far enough forward.
Essex were rescued from a deeper embarrassment by the wicketkeeper James Foster, who did his chances of a Test recall no harm with an 81-ball half-century that contained several impressive strokes, having arrived to face Martin's hat-trick ball. Foster's partnership with Graham Napier added 57 for the eighth wicket before Anderson returned to remove Napier. Foster was caught at long-on off Carl Hooper, one of two victims for the former West Indies captain, making his Lancashire debut as short-term stand-in for the unavailable Harbhajan Singh.
By stumps, Lancashire were well placed to build a first-innings lead, having closed to 88 runs behind, with Alec Swann their sole casualty and Iain Sutcliffe unbeaten on 50.