Michael Pepper made a stunning impact when making his return to first team action when Essex met Durham at Chester-le-Street last week.

Selected for the number 4 batting position vacated by the absence of England Test bound batsman Dan Lawrence, the fresh-faced 22 year-old took the step-up from second team cricket in his stride to attract widespread praise and plaudits from colleagues and onlookers alike.

And the congratulations were thoroughly merited with the Harlow-born batsman contributing more than half of his side’s first innings total, two years had passed since he last made a first-class appearance.

He came through an understandably nervy start to quickly settle and flourish with 92 out of his side’s 182 all out.

“What an innings and I’m absolutely delighted for him,” Head Coach Anthony McGrath enthused. “He has been knocking on the door for a first team chance for a while now and has started the season well in the second team. He thoroughly deserved his chance.

“When he walked out to bat, it was probably the toughest time of the game for batters but he handled the situation superbly and that innings went a long way to getting us the lead and setting up victory.”
Whilst the Durham bowlers were feasting on a regular diet of wickets, Pepper indulged himself in a regular helping of runs with some classic driving and sound application.

He looked well set to become the first batsman this season to take a century off the north-east bowling attack but, just 8 runs short of his maiden first-class century (he had beaten his previous best of 22), he became one of 19 – yes – 19 lbw victims in the match which set a new domestic record for dismissals of that nature in a first-class fixture.

And when Pepper’s tower of strength effort ended, the innings capitulated dramatically with the last wickets toppling for 3 runs in 17 balls.

But the visitors attack showed their teeth dismissing their opponents for 99 before Essex posted 301 in their second trip to the middle with Pepper contributing 22 to support 81 by Adam Wheater and 55 from Ryan ten Doeschate.

Then the bowlers took charge again rolling over the home side for 189 to ensure Essex their third Championship victory of the season and their position back at the top of Group One.

Pepper joined the Essex staff in 2018 having played for Cambridgeshire and spent that winter, playing for Western Province Cricket Club in South Africa.

He recalled that he was about 7 or 8 years old when he first started to play cricket with his brother.

“We spent our first few years in Harlow, then moved to Little Walden and I went to school there until I was 13 when we moved to Cambridge,” he relates.

“My Mum’s family are from South Africa and we usually went over there every Christmas to visit. My cricketing hero when I was growing up was AB de Villiers, I loved watching him play.”

Fast forward to last week and Pepper admitted that was delighted to get his chance and prove himself in what was only his fourth first-class outing for Essex.

“Yes, I’ve had to be patient but there is so much depth to our squad; you have to be prepared to grab the chance when it comes along,” he reflected.

“I did get nervous once I got into the 80’s and then 90’s because that century was getting so close but I don’t think my process was any different then to that of earlier.

“I will admit that I did feel pressure when I first walked out to bat, I got away with a few inside edges but once I’d settled down, I was just focussing on the ball and trying to keep things as simple as I could.

“I wanted to keep positive which I think was crucial on that wicket. When you looked around and saw people trying to dig in and survive, it didn’t seem to work for them so I reckoned that being positive was the way to play.

“The main thing when you contribute is that you want it to be part of a winning cause, so the fact that we won was the most satisfying thing for me. It was an unbelievable effort from everyone involved in the victory.”

Essex now entertain second-placed Nottinghamshire at Chelmsford this week starting on Thursday.

It is a vital match for the home side who have a 5 points lead at the top of their group but they have played one game more than their opponents.