A book, so goes the old adage, should never be judged by its cover. That mantra could apply for Kia Oval pitches too. Even when exhibiting green tinges, as it did under dark skies on day one, encouraging James Foster to back his medium pace artillery and field first, the assistance the bowlers found was not as obliging as they’d hoped.
It came as no surprise to see Surrey asked to bat, with warnings of intermittent showers likely to move in during the afternoon another factor to consider. But whereas Essex enjoyed exaggerated lateral movement and unpredictable bounce at Chelmsford in their win over Kent last week, there was limited help after the opening 10 overs were seen out.
That was until Jesse Ryder’s new ball heroics changed the dynamics of the game late on in the day, trapping Kevin Pietersen lbw with a delivery that kept low before sending his replacement Jason Roy back in similar fashion two balls later. The game had started to get away from the visitors by then, as Steven Davies and Pietersen stretched their first innings score with little trouble.
Surrey were in a position of superiority thanks to the early blunting of Essex’s attack by young opening pair of Zafar Ansari and Rory Burns, who completed it dutifully, navigating their way through a tricky 10 over spell that brought a mere 19 runs but only a single scare. Graham Napier, still a hulking allrounder, whizzed down his first delivery and with late swing caught Ansari cold, the batsmen edging to third slip where Smith juggled the ball to the ground (Smith would later allow Pietersen a short-lived reprieve when he spilled him at point).
That fleeting moment apart, it was a calmed, reassuring innings by two batsmen who will want to push their case this season in a Surrey squad that possesses so much competition for places. While Ansari eventually departed lbw to Jamie Porter, as he looked to work the ball to leg, Burns plodded along to his half-century contently, striking six fours, all behind square.
Last season saw Burns record over a thousand first-class runs- the first time he’s achieved that feat- as early promise turned into sustained performances. Yet while Ansari, Roy and bowler Matt Dunn all partook in post-season England Performance Programmes, the latter two then going on to the England Lions tour of South Africa, Burns received no such call-up. He instead spent the winter in London, committing his time to fitness work.
Speaking before the start of the County Championship, Burns mentioned how he wants to give the national selectors ‘a nudge’ in 2015, and if they had witnessed today’s 78, they would be reminded of his determined outlook. When in the zone, Burns glides across the pitch like snooker balls on the baize, effortlessly floating and timing his shots.
Here, it took him longer to find that formula, clipping a couple past the Essex slips – two deliveries off Napier that went over and then underneath the two-man cordon leaving Essex visibly frustrated.
Few can boast such celebrated team-mates as Burns, who in his short career has played alongside Ricky Ponting, Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla and now Kumar Sangakkara. Yet he has not learnt to play quite like them yet. Having watched the Sri Lankan put Monty Panesar into the Bedser Stand, Burns attempted to replicate the shot in the spinner’s next over. The result instead saw him send it high for Smith at backward point to collect and leave him ruing a missed century.
But so strong is Surrey’s batting that with Sangakkara pushing on to 52, before Ryder got one to moved in to dispose of him lbw, and Steven Davies in wonderful touch, caressing the ball into gaps on the way to an unbeaten 69, that the hosts are on course for an imposing first innings total.