<
>

No keeping Will Jacks in the box as youngsters put Surrey on top against Essex

Will Jacks on the run Getty Images

Surrey 342 for 7 (Jacks 88, Patel 70*, Foakes 69) v Essex

There is little in sport that can compete with the beguiling spectacle of young talent. Surrey are the county champions, and last season were unchallenged as the leading four-day side in the country, but they have also become a prolific finishing school for England prospects. It seemed appropriate, therefore, that the opening day of their title defence should be carried by the brio of two of the youngest men on the pitch.

Will Jacks, 20 years and 141 days, set social media aflame last month when he struck a 25-ball hundred - which included hitting six sixes in an over - in a pre-season warm-up game in the UAE, and his first scoring shot on this occasion was also a hearty thump over the ropes. He went to fifty with a crisply driven four off the same bowler, Simon Harmer, and continued to bat with similar elan against the second new ball. Clearly there is no keeping Jacks in the box.

He seemed set to dance his way through the evening shadows to a maiden first-class hundred, only for Peter Siddle to finally breach Jacks' defences, following up a snarling lifter with one that came in to rattle the stumps. Jacks walked off following a sparkling, career-best 88 to generous applause from a good-sized first-day crowd at The Oval, their appetites duly whetted for the season to come.

At the other end during their fifth-wicket partnership of 151 - a Surrey record against Essex - was Ryan Patel, the senior man at 21, whose most memorable contribution to last season's success was a spell of 6 for 5 with the ball in an innings victory over Somerset at Guildford. Patel may not have played here had Scott Borthwick been passed fit, but he was tasked with batting at No. 3 and demonstrated a temperament worthy of the promotion; having taken 36 balls to record his first run, he batted for more than five hours to anchor his side to the close.

As Alec Stewart and Michael Di Venuto acknowledged before the start of the season, there is a difference between hunting down the Championship trophy - which Surrey had done for the first time since 2002 - and being the quarry. Just ask Essex, who were title-winners 18 months ago. Most of their chasing on a bright, chilly day was in vain as Patel and Jacks pushed on confidently from a position of 181 for 4.

Ed Smith, the national selector, was in attendance at The Oval, though he did not tarry beyond tea - meaning he missed much of the fun. He was able to observe a punchy fifty from Ben Foakes, eager to make his case for a Test recall this summer, and a couple of unconverted starts from England openers past and present, Mark Stoneman and Rory Burns. Depending on how often he blinks, he might have missed Ollie Pope, who drove his second ball for four and edged his third to slip.

Foakes received a life on 0 when Dan Lawrence dropped a straightforward catch at second slip, but thereafter elicited several grunts of approval during an innings that included 14 fours, though Smith would doubtless have preferred to see him press home his point with a hundred.

Patel was one of the tyros involved when Surrey set a post-war record by fielding four teenagers in the same side at the end of 2017 - Pope, Sam Curran and Amar Virdi were the other three. Curran, who is now away at the IPL, and Pope have since played for England, while there are several more-experienced Surrey hands jockeying for England positions - notably Jason Roy, who is eyeing an Ashes opening but was not fit to play in this match. Smith may need to keep his Oyster card topped up.

After a hammering against Hampshire last week, this was another tough outing for Essex - though Siddle's four-wicket haul (he was also the man to see Foakes put down) kept them competitive. They would clearly have preferred not to start round two with another long day in the field, but lost a contested toss and saw Surrey's southpaw openers Burns and Stoneman box cleverly during the opening exchanges.

Essex were already without wicketkeeper Adam Wheater, with Middlesex loanee Rob White drafted in behind the stumps, and they lost Ravi Bopara before the start, too, due to a stiff back. Perhaps that contributed to a sloppy start with the ball, in marked contrast to when they bowled Surrey out for 67 in the final match of the 2018 season (although that game nearly got away from them at the end of a rip-roaring contest).

This time, the openers reached 75 without loss - Burns also benefiting from a Lawrence drop when on 23 - before Essex hit back with three quick wickets before lunch.