Warwickshire 7 for 0 trail Essex 295 (Browne 68, Walter 66, ten Doeschate 56, Hannon-Dalby 4-73, Stone 4-89) by 288 runs
Not all wickets are equal. It has long remained one of cricket’s charming idiosyncrasies that the wicket of Ricky Ponting on a batting paradise in Adelaide is valued (in basis career statistics, at least) the same as the wicket as Charl Willoughby – a man who did almost as little for bats as the wet markets of Wuhan – on a minefield in Leeds.
But there are dismissals that make you sit up and take notice. So it was when Olly Stone dismissed Paul Walter at Edgbaston. Walter was well set at the time. The ball was old – in its 69th over – and the wicket held no terrors. Quite the opposite: this looks like an excellent batting track for the time of year.
But such is Stone’s pace and hostility, he had Walter caught at third man – a fly slip, really, albeit one standing on the boundary – by a bouncer that reared towards his neck, took the shoulder of the bat and flew every bit of 40 metres. He had already softened him up with a pair of bouncers that struck him on the upper body.
Pace isn’t everything, of course. But just because it’s not everything doesn’t mean it’s nothing. And on flat surfaces – the sort England can anticipate in Australia this winter, for example – well-directed pace is an invaluable tool. Stone, with his pleasing shape, his probing length, his pace and his sharp bouncer looks tailor-made for the trip. Marcus Trescothick, England’s new elite batting coach, will have noted this as he watched on from the deserted stands at Edgbaston.
By then, Stone had already had Dan Lawrence caught at midwicket – not from his finest ball, to be fair – and Nick Browne caught behind after flashing at one he might have left. Replays also suggested Stone might have been a little unfortunate not to win a leg-before decision against Browne before the batter had scored and was even more unfortunate not to win a leg-before decision against Walter when he had 30. An edge from Browne, on 24, eluded the slip cordon.
Stone did not have things entirely his own way. Ryan ten Doeschate, in particular, made full use of an unusually short boundary towards the Priory side of the ground by pulling successive fours and then a six when Stone tried to bounce him. But Stone countered with the dismissal of Adam Wheater, poking at one flashing past his off stump, to claim his fourth wicket and see off Essex for a total that might be considered as much as 100 below par.
Given Stone’s injury record, it was encouraging he played this game at all. He delivered 41 overs last week and, having not played back-to-back first-class games since 2019 – this is actually just his fourth first-class game since July 2019 and one of those was curtailed by injury – it bodes well that he didn’t just report fit, but was able to generate such pace. In this form, he offers England a depth in their fast-bowling resources they have not had for a decade or more – in other words, since they last time they won in Australia.
“My body is feeling great,” he said afterwards, belying an open blister and blackened nail on his big toe. “Having had an injury-free winter, I felt ready to play back-to-back games and I wanted to prove to people that I could do it. It’s all about being ready for the Tests against New Zealand.
“I hope I’m the finished article now. I’m still pushing hard to improve but all the months of rehab were about getting to where I am now. Dismissals like that one – the Walter one – are the dream, really. I’m really happy.”
Stone’s contribution helped Warwickshire hit back in the final session of an intriguing day. At tea, Essex had been well-placed at 186 for 3 with Warwickshire ruing two or three dropping catches. The worst of them, Sam Hain putting down Browne in the slips on 20 off Craig Miles, looked as if it might be especially expensive as Browne moved ominously into the 60s.
Indeed, such was Browne’s patience that he played only five scoring shots in the first two hours of play and his first single came from his 92nd delivery. It was some surprise when, almost immediately after the second interval, he poked at one from Stone in a fiery three-over burst that removed both set batters and turned the direction of the day’s play.
Earlier, an impostor purporting to be Alastair Cook produced a more than passable impression of David Gower in making a run-a-ball 46. He certainly looked like Cook; he even wore his shirt. But, as he reeled off a string of gorgeous drives and pulled Stone for six, it was hard to recall a time he had ever batted so fluently. As Browne, who contributed eight of their first 50 runs, put it: “I’ve batted with Cookie a lot of times over the years and never seen him bat like that before. He looked like Bradman.”
Oliver Hannon-Dalby, plugging away at the other end on a probing length, ended with even better figures than Stone. But harsh though it may be, England are blessed with an abundance of excellent fast-medium bowlers who can threaten with a Dukes ball. It’s bowlers like Stone who could unlock batting line-ups on the flatter surfaces generally encountered in Test cricket.
Given the wretched luck he has suffered with injuries over the years, there can be no room for complacency. But as England build for the Ashes, Stone seems to be coming to the boil nicely.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo