By David Bowden (@Bowdenwhu)
Where? The Essex County Ground, Chelmsford
Ins: Matt Coles (Kent), Feroze Khushi (YTH), Peter Siddle (AUS, April – Mid May) Neil Wagner (NZ, Mid-May to end of July – with option of extending), Adam Zampa (AUS, T20)
Outs: Kishen Velani (REL)
Key Man: Simon Harmer
Last Season: County Championship: Winners, RLODC: Semi-finalist, T20: Q/F
2018 Odds: Championship: 4/1, RLODC: 14/1, T20: 12/1
Essex had waited 25 long years to get their hands back on the County Championship trophy, not since their golden era in the eighties has there been this much excitement around Chelmsford.
A lot can be compared now to that of the great teams in the eighties and early nineties. Essex has always prided itself on bringing through the brightest talents in the local area. In the 20th century, the Eagles had players like the great Graham Gooch, Ray East and the adopted favourite Essex son Keith Fletcher. Fast-forward to 2018 and they have a new crop of local stars in Jamie Porter, Nick Browne and their new adopted son Ryan Ten Doeschate hoping to lead them to a new golden period.
Credit must be given to Derek Bowden and Ronnie Irani who took the bull by the horns and made big changes to the mentality of this little county from the East of England. They saw that the club was stagnating in the Second Division under Paul Grayson and made the much called for change in leadership. Out went the former Essex opener to be replaced by his number two, Chris Silverwood, and the rest, as they say, is history. The Chelmsford-based club suddenly had a complete change in playing style, there were no more cautious decisions on the outfield and with some shrewd signings, the club are back where they historically belong.
It was always going to prove key to keep hold of the core group that has taken Essex to the ‘next level’. There were plenty of murmurings around the County Ground that Surrey were sniffing around Dan Lawerence and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that the ‘bigger counties’ are starting to look at Jamie Porter too given his incredible breakthrough season in Division One. Perhaps though the fact that Lawrence ignored the glitz and the glamour of the Surrey dressing room shows how far the club has come. There is a real togetherness in the camp and with the supporters, and that was always going to be the key going into their defence of their newly held crown.
The only major blow for the club was the departure of the man that orchestrated Essex’s revival, Chris Silverwood, many expected his departure the minute the England Bowling coaching job came about, and it was quite fitting for the Eagles to wrap up their memorable season by finishing unbeaten and hammering his former county Yorkshire in that final game week.
His departure will be felt for sure though, many players grew under him as coach but what Bowden and Irani will hope is that the style and mentality won’t be hugely affected given the fact Anthony Mcgrath was part of that wonderful journey to where they are today. It is important that McGrath stamps his own authority on the camp whilst keeping things similar to the previous regime.
He will of course, like Silverwood was, be heavily reliant on two of Essex’s biggest weapons, Jamie Porter and Simon Harmer. The pair combined to lethal effect last summer collecting 148 wickets between them, as the Eagles ripped through sides time-after-time to claim big wins.
Porter’s story is perhaps one of the warmest in County Cricket. The Leytonstone-born seamer was about to turn his back on cricket when he was spotted by Essex’s chief scout Barry Hyam playing for Chingford. Two years later, back-to-back title-winning seasons and a tour to the Carribean with the England Lions it is safe to say he loves the game of cricket once again. He will be crucial again for the Eagles as he looks to continue his fine form with half an eye on taking over from James Anderson in a couple of years in the England set-up.
If you talk to many at Essex they will tell you that Harmer was the missing link that the club have been crying out for a long time. A man that can hold up an end and look constantly dangerous throughout. Porter claims his partner in crime is the best spinner in the county circuit and you’d be foolish to argue with him given his 72-wicket haul from his first season in county cricket.
The big shoes of the departure of Mohammed Amir have been left with Aussie Peter Siddle who will be joining the Eagles this week for the first six games of the Championship season. Essex will see this a big coup and after years of chasing the fierce quick and they have finally got their man. He will offer something different to the Essex attack, much like Amir did. He will show heart, spirit and will be a man that will run through brick walls for the side. Neil Wagner will replace Siddle in May, Wags as he is affectionally known around the County Ground was a popular signing after making such an impact last season at the club. Whilst he didn’t pull up any trees, he was Mr. Reliable and played a massive role in the dressing room helping young Aaron Beard and Sam Cook master their trade. If Wagner can produce half the level of skill he showed in the recent Test match series in New Zealand against England he will prove to be another very astute resigning from the Eagles.
Joining Siddle in the dressing room for the first time will be Matt Coles; the former Hampshire and Kent man has crossed the Dartford tunnel to join the Champions. It was a curious signing for the Eagles giving his somewhat bad boy reputation, but if any county can get the best out of Coles it is Essex. Jesse Ryder came with a similar reputation a few years ago but his reputation was soon forgotten about as the tight-knit dressing room welcomed him with open arms and he soon became one of the boys. Essex will hope that Coles will fall into that category too as he certainly offers white-ball guile as well as hard hitting down the order. Perhaps a nod to what Essex are aiming to become this season under new assistant Dimitri Mascarenhas, the former Hampshire all-rounder has developed quite the reputation of being an excellent white-bowl coach and his appointment, to me at least, seems like the club are wanting to become a unit that can fire in all competitions.
So what will 2018 bring for the reigning Champions? Can they retain their title or will they be the next Middlesex and go down straight after the highest of highs? Last year Ten Doeschate’s men came from no-where to absolutely dominate the top flight, even the most biased of Essex fans didn’t see that coming. They will be hard pushed to repeat the feat that took them to glory. They will, of course, have goals, firstly to get enough points on the board to keep their heads above water, and then who knows. It will be a fiercely competitive league this year and being title-holders they are there to be shot at. They will no longer have that element of surprise they perhaps carried last summer, but the bowling attack is strong enough to take 20-wickets consistently it is just whether the batting line-up can set them up consistently enough.
As for the white-ball game, the Eagles will hope that Adam Zampa (signed for the entirety of the T20 campaign) will offer them that element of mystery, and the newly acquired white-ball skill of Coles will offer them another wicket taking option at the top of the innings. T20 has always been the competition to elude Essex and they will want to put that right this summer under the tutelage of Mascarenhas.
Perhaps though, their best chance of white-ball success will come in the Royal London One-Day Cup, I feel as though the Eagles batting line-up is more suited to the longer formats of limited overs cricket. Essex’s line-up is more about craft and subtlety than the brute force and strength that T20 requires. They’ll qualify out of the group in the 50-over competition but they’ll have to get over their Knockout stage hoodoo to give their fans a trip to any sort of limited overs final.
County Championship: 3rd
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