Essex have a pedigree over the past few decades of producing formidable opening batsmen. While Nick Browne is still firmly in the early stages of his career, his defiant innings here bodes well for a county that for too long have struggled to find a suitable replacement for Alastair Cook.
There was understandable concern going into this match that their top order could suffer against the might of Surrey’s pace attack. Combined, the visitor’s youthful top four has played 100 first-class matches, 25-year-old Jaik Mickleburgh contributing 81 of those.
Yet after a nervy start, the makeshift partnership of Browne and Mickleburgh began to eke out the runs that would see them close the day within 74 runs of Surrey’s first innings total. It was always a trickle rather than a torrent, but the pair formed an inspiring fightback. Having survived the early test, confidence rose as the host’s seeped away.
Browne, a tall batsman whose stocky build deceives his true height, set about the task with the appearance of someone possessing greater experience than his 13 matches. Yet he has taken quickly to county cricket in that brief time, scoring three centuries, two coming unbeaten in the same match against Derbyshire last season, the first Essex cricketer to do so since John Stephenson set the record in 1992. So impressive was his 2014 impact even, that he received a two year contract and just as many end of season awards.
In possession of a sound defence, with little problem playing outside his offstump as so many left-handed batsmen do, Browne produced an innings without flaw. It was only right that when he brought his hundred up it should be by dropping the ball for two to third man, a region he profiteered from throughout.
Browne was efficient, never straying from the shots he’s accustomed to, never attempting an audacious manoeuvre that he had not practised numerous times in the nets. In doing so, he confirmed the questionable tactic of Surrey to deploy only three recognised pace bowlers and two spinners.
Partnered by Mickleburgh, a close friend and someone he spent large parts of the winter training with in Sydney, the deficit slowly crumbled. Frustrations came to the fore for Surrey when Jade Dernbach threatened to throw down the stumps after Mickleburgh deftly knocked the ball back to him.
It took 41 overs before the eventual breakthrough, Mickleburgh departing lbw to Gareth Batty, having attempted a speculative sweep. Browne carried on imperiously, aided by confident 17-year-old Dan Lawrence – a four and straight six off a Zafar Ansari over marking him out as one to watch – finishing the day unbeaten on 48.
In the end, Browne’s favoured shot would be his undoing. Attempting one more glance to third man, the ball moved a little and skipped to the hands of Gary Wilson, for a career-best 143.
“I pride myself on scoring big hundreds and converting fifties to hundreds,” Browne said afterwards. “That’s something I really want to do and keep doing.
“I think it is important when you play against good bowlers, and sometimes on tricky wickets, you’ve got to know what your weaknesses are and what your strengths are. I know that now, it’s taken a while to learn.”
On a day that started with so much promise for Surrey, it ended with growing irritation and disappointment. Inserted the previous morning, they scurried their way to a tantalising total that night, yet within an hour of play they had unravelled.
After Steven Davies went, driving aerially to Jesse Ryder at point off David Masters, a brief Wilson cameo moved the score to 340 before Graham Napier dismissed him for 46.
From there, they lost their final four wickets for no addition. Monty Panesar had Batty trudging back three balls later, followed by Napier wiping out the final two wickets of Curran and Dunn in the space of three deliveries.