Worcestershire 364 (Mitchell 67, D’Oliveira 67, Fell 53) and 129 for 2 (Libby 52*, Cook 2-7) drew with Essex 561 for 8 dec (Cook 115, Westley 113, Lawrence 90, Walter 65, Harmer 57*)
When spectators are finally allowed back into New Road, they will be greeted by something of a sad sight. Two of the horse chestnut trees that have overlooked the ground for many years have gone; felled to prevent the disease they suffered spreading to the fortunate remaining tree.
As this match has worn on, however, the suspicion has grown that the two trees were the lucky ones. Indeed, an alternate theory is they hacked themselves down as they could no longer bear to watch the grim cricket being played in front of them.
That is not to decry the efforts of the two sides in this match. Both fought hard throughout. There was no shortage of skill or commitment on offer in this game.
But 40 wickets have now fallen at this ground in eight days of cricket this season. And, while a total of 2,002 runs in that time might make it sound as if there has been a feast of batting, the run-rate has been 2.75 per over. It is not a wicket that is good for batters, bowlers or spectators. At times in this match, there were six fielders on the boundary and batters were more concerned with shovelling out low-bouncing grubbers than thinking of the stokes they might play. You could almost imagine the poor remaining tree calling out for a lumberjack.
Such a track has not been designed. Instead, the club are dealing with the consequences of severe winter flooding followed by a dry but cold March. As a result, there has been little grass growth. The groundstaff cannot be blamed.
It does make for pretty grim cricket, though. You wonder whether the use of heat lamps – to promote grass growth – or hybrid surfaces – which are now routinely used in limited-overs cricket – might play a part in finding a solution. But Worcestershire are going to find it desperately tough to win games here if the wickets are like this. The extra points provided for a draw this season do little to discourage such tracks.
“It was a low, slow, turgid wicket,” Essex head coach Anthony McGrath said afterwards. “It was tough for bowlers and not free-flowing for batsmen. When Simon Harmer isn’t getting any turn at nearly 5pm on the fourth evening, you know things are tough. It’s been a grind. It’s not made for great watching.
“I’d be open-minded about trials of hybrid pitches. In some circumstances, like those we’ve seen here, it might be worth experimenting.”
For a moment, in mid-morning, the game briefly flickered into life. Worcestershire, apparently cruising at 313 for 5, were suddenly 326 for 9, with Sam Cook claiming 3 for 1 in 16 deliveries.
But a 10th-wicket stand of 38 between Dillon Pennington and Charlie Morris arrested the slide. It wasn’t so much the runs the pair scored as the fact they kept Essex out in the field for an extra 15 overs. Essex had no choice but to enforce the follow-on – there were three overs of Worcestershire’s second innings before lunch on the fourth day – but by then they had already bowled 138.1 overs.
Perhaps it showed. While Cook remained dangerous, the rest of attack looked understandably jaded. Peter Siddle bowled three overs before he was taken off with a few to challenges ahead – Essex start their next game at Trent Bridge on Thursday – and Cook had to be rested at some stage. He may well be rested for that match.
The result leaves Essex one from the bottom of Group One with one victory in four matches. But though that is an unflattering position, there is little reason for concern. They have dominated long stretches of the last two games and, even now, are only five points from the top spot.
Cook, in particular, emerged with great credit from this game. On a surface on which Siddle, for example, finished wicketless, Cook delivered 40 overs (19 of them maidens) and claimed 6 for 67. It was an immense performance which deserved rather better from the conditions.
Nagging away like toothache, Cook invariably hits a good length and can swing the ball away. But it was the one that nipped back that accounted for Ben Cox, beaten through the gate, and then, in the second-innings, Daryl Mitchell, leaving one that took his off stump.
He is not especially quick – perhaps 80 mph – but, in another playing age, an age when the likes of Steve Watkin, Richard Ellison or Tim Munton were playing for England, Cook might well be close to a national call-up. Right now, with the likes of Craig Overton and Ollie Robinson ahead of him, he seems some way back in the challenge. But he is a terrific bowler and if the chance did come, he wouldn’t let England down.
Much the same could be said of Simon Harmer. He has now bowled nearly 100 more overs than anyone else in the County Championship this season (he has bowled 262.4; the next busiest bowler is Jack Carson with 167.2) and in this game alone bowled 73 overs.
Worcestershire were, once again, grateful for the solidity of Jake Libby. His half-century here took his season average above 100 and left him as one of only 10 men to have scored 400 Championship runs this season. He has proved an excellent signing.
This result leaves Worcestershire third in the table but just two points off the top spot. They play Warwickshire, who are top, at Edgbaston this week with Josh Tongue and Joe Leach in line to freshen up an attack that has spent a lot of time on its feet of late. Jack Haynes may also come in for Gareth Roderick, who looks short of confidence at present.
In the end, though, nothing anyone did on this pitch made any difference.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo