CHELMSFORD: Players warming up in woolly hats and multiple layers. A biting wind whipping across the lush green grass. Welcome to the first day of the English county cricket season. While global stars strut their stuff in the cauldron of the Indian Premier League, Essex and Kent faced off in the first act of a six-month drama in the small city of Chelmsford. First-class county cricket has long been a target for criticism, seen by some as a niche activity that fails to produce players of Test quality and watched by sparse crowds. The four-day County Championship has been shunted around to accommodate various forms of limited overs, or white-ball, cricket including the newly arrived Hundred competition. And in recent months the game has been damaged by a racism scandal, with Yorkshire in the spotlight over the club’s treatment of former bowler Azeem Rafiq. Essex themselves commissioned an independent investigation into historical allegations of racism at the club. But the hundreds of supporters braving the bracing early spring temperatures in Chelmsford on Thursday were keen for the action to start. The players stood for a moment of reflection alongside the umpires to remember cricketers who had died in recent months as well as victims of the war in Ukraine and the coronavirus pandemic. An announcer at the ground, about 40 miles (64 kilometres) northeast of London, read out a statement stressing the “shared determination” to tackle discrimination and racism as the few hundred fans stood in silence under grey skies. “We embrace and celebrate differences everywhere, knowing that with diversity we are stronger,” he said. First skirmishes:Then former England Test captain Alastair Cook walked out to the middle with fellow opening batsman Nick Browne to face the first overs in the first division fixture. Players lost their caps and sunglasses as a strong wind ruffled their traditional white kit and a few raindrops fell, but the game got under way on time. So what persuades the hardy souls to brave the cold and huddle on the boundary edge? Keith Buckley, 75, has been watching Essex for more than 60 years, starting with a match against the visiting Australians in 1961. Buckley, wearing a panama hat and blazer, used to be a keen follower of Premier League football club West Ham but says cricket is the game in his heart. “I just love the appeal of four-day county cricket,” he said. “It ebbs and flows. It’s more for the purists than the white-ball game”. Kevin Brazier, 55, bringing his seven-year-old Australian grandson, Spencer to his first game, had already secured autographs from Cook and other players before the start of play. “This time of year it can be hard for the players,” said the part-time teacher, wearing an Essex cap. “Conditions are tough for batting but cricket is a staple diet for Englishmen.” Jean Connolly, 65, is looking forward to a cricket-filled retirement. “I used to fit in a game but now I’m just retired and I’m a member so I can come to every game,” she said. “I love cricket. My mum was a cricket lover, she loved Test cricket.” Connolly, wrapped up against the cold, said the four-day game needed to be better promoted alongside the shorter formats, which draw much bigger crowds. “I’m a fan of the Hundred because it gives people an insight into the game,” she said. “If people aren’t brought up with cricket they don’t know the ins and outs of the game. “Lots of people who went to watch the Hundred (which started last year) have asked about other forms of the game. We need to bring new fans into the game.” The supporters who were at the ground enjoyed the first session of play as Essex reached 86 without loss at lunch. Applause greeted the players as they walked off. Even the sun came out.