Essex 345 for 3 (Browne 163*, Lawrence 64, Bopara 62*) lead Nottinghamshire 213 by 132 runs
Nottinghamshire have set their sights on securing wins from three of their remaining seven matches in the hope that the points accrued will be enough to save their place in Division One. The chances of this contest providing one of them did not look good at the end of the opening day and things have not improved 24 hours later.
Essex, fancying they can pull off a second Championship title in three years after a run of four victories in their last five and hugely encouraged by last week's downing of leaders Somerset at Chelmsford, are well in control. They have built handsomely on Nick Browne's unbeaten 163 with half-centuries from Dan Lawrence and Ravi Bopara and Nottinghamshire supporters, mindful of their side's fragility, are already gloomily predicting another notch in the losses column.
Nottinghamshire are not down yet, of course. They travel next week to Taunton, where they have not won in 11 visits since 2004, yet they have straws to clutch at in that three of their last five fixtures are at home, against the other sides in the bottom half of the table. Maybe those are the three on which they are pinning their hopes.
Who can be blamed for this sorry state? Four of the five most obvious candidates - the chairman, the chief executive, the director of cricket and the head coach - put themselves up to be shot at in a members' forum during the lunch interval. Nottinghamshire do not habitually shy away from criticism but it says something, perhaps, about the level of displeasure they expected to face that the invitation often extended to the local paper to attend these private gatherings was not made.
Another who might have been asked some difficult questions had he been available to attend was the captain, Steven Mullaney, but he can hardly be blamed for the form of his players. A raft of new signings promised much but since the opening fixture of the season against Yorkshire at Trent Bridge, when Joe Clarke was close to a hundred in both innings and there were half-centuries for two of the other newcomers, Ben Duckett and Ben Slater, no batsman has delivered other than fleetingly.
Among those, Clarke has been the biggest worry. Head coach Peter Moores admitted last week that the focus of the former Worcestershire batsman has been skewed for the last two months since his friend and ex-team-mate Alex Hepburn was jailed for five years after being found guilty of rape. Clarke had to give evidence in Hepburn's trial and subsequent re-trial and himself faces an ECB charge of bringing cricket into disrepute over the sordid WhatsApp messaging group to which he, Hepburn and others were contributors.
Dropping good players does not come easily to the loyal Moores and Nottinghamshire make a priority of safeguarding the welfare of those in their charge but there is equally an argument for taking Clarke out of the spotlight if his form does not recover. At this time, they can ill-afford to carry a batsman who has scored 122 in his last 10 innings, particularly given that none of his fellow batters is exactly covering for him..
One of them may have to produce something exceptional if Nottinghamshire are to deny Essex here after a day in which 273 runs were scored and only two wickets fell.
Browne, whose resilience at the top of the order was a key factor in Essex winning the title in 2017, was less effective last season, yet this innings brought a reaffirmation of his value to this team. The pitch in use here has played benignly for the most part but he had Stuart Broad and R Ashwin to contend with, a combination to test any batsman.
His marathon effort, spanning almost seven and a half hours so far, has brought him to 163 not out, his best Championship score - his first in three figures, for that matter - since his 221 against Middlesex at Chelmsford in the June of that title-winning year.
With the support in the early part of the day of Tom Westley and latterly Dan Lawrence and Ravi Bopara, Browne's solid application to the all-too-rarely seen virtue of occupying the crease has put Essex 132 ahead and in a position to dictate the course of this match, assured by the knowledge that if any attack can exploit an opponent's frailties, it is theirs.
They did not rush things, preferring to build steadily rather than be drawn into the usual rush for batting points and that suited Browne in particular, who allowed himself to negotiate 28 balls without scoring at one stage. Watchfulness was always advisable anyway, against Ashwin, who had the stamina to bowl 40 overs on the day on his Nottinghamshire debut, but for all his variety could produce only one wicket-taking delivery as Westley nicked to slip in the first hour.
Not until the second new ball did Nottinghamshire claim a second wicket, Lawrence playing down the wrong line to one from Luke Fletcher, who deserved some success from a fine spell.
Browne was not flawless. He was allowed a life on 81 when the unfortunate Clarke put down a fairly routine chance at square leg off Jake Ball. Otherwise he was mightily impressive.