Wednesday, 14 March 2007

2007 Season Preview: Essex

2006 in a nutshell:
A solid season for the Eagles saw them maintain their ascendancy in one day competitions, but lose out in the end-of-season dust down for promotion from Div 2. Despite a muscular challenge right up until the final game (including a particularly satisfying obliteration of Derbyshire in the season’s penultimate fixture, winning by an inns and 178 runs, losing only three wickets in the process), in the end it was our lack of penetration with the ball – a problem that has limited the club’s Championship aspirations in recent years – that undid us, leaving Worcestershire to claim second spot. Semi-finalists in the Twenty20 and winners of the revised Pro40 one day league, holding onto the National League title won the year before in the old format, allowed for plenty of smiles around the County Ground, and even led to Essex tyro Ravi Bopara snatching a berth in England’s World Cup squad.

2007 prospects:
The main problems encountered by Essex in 2006 stemmed from an inability to consistently bowl teams out, and despite losing Darren Gough back to Yorkshire, increased firepower with the leather sphere has been a number one priority. Danish Kaneria will twirl his way throughout the county season, hopefully with equivalent success to his first spell in Chelmsford, while Andre Nel, and then Andy Bichel, will provide some serious new ball ammunition. County pro Darren Thomas has been recruited from Glamorgan, and if Alex Tudor can continue his rehabilitation and lower his strike rate, we may start knocking teams over, thereby making life a little easier for the batsmen. Promotion has to be the goal, and the prospects don’t look too bad.

Some of our batting was of the serene variety last season, with 22 centuries racked up between 11 different players. Mark Pettini was a revelation after moving to the top of the order, and his success led to the displacement and subsequent departure of the once England-touted Will Jefferson. Pettini’s 1,218 Championship runs came at 46, and included a magnificent knock of 208* in the aforementioned thrashing of Derbyshire.

Two other players, the evergreen Andy Flower and trusty ol’ Ronnie Irani, topped a thousand runs, while Ally Cook managed to find the time to cream more than four hundred, including two centuries, in only three matches, when not turning out for England. The only disappointment can be that James Foster’s seven hundred runs at 42 were not enough to force him back into contention as England’s gloveman. Fingers crossed for 2007.

In the short form, Irani and Flower again scored heavily, while Bopara’s 424 runs at 38 included a sparkling 101* from 97 balls against Somerset in the C&G Trophy group stage. In the Twenty20, another accomplished innings of 83 from 46 balls by Bopara saw Essex polish of Surrey under the beating sun at the Brit Oval, as they successfully chased 188, while Ryan ten Doeschate and Irani (again) both averaged over 40 in the competition.

As I’ve alluded to, this was the Eagles’ achilles heel. Only Goughie managed to take more than ten wickets at less than thirty runs apiece, and with his fitness restricting him to a mere seven games, we relied heavily on bit-part contributions. The spinners, Tim Phillips and Jamie Middlebrook, both persevered admirably for their figures of 34 @ 45 and 32 @ 49 respectively, while Andy Bichel’s haul of 32 wickets @ 30.96 over the second half of the season almost dragged us across the finishing line; but sadly an inability to dismiss more than 5 Leicestershire batsmen (and one of them a run out) when chasing 300 on the final day of the Championship (thus forfeiting second place) summed up the state of our attack.

As for encouraging sidelines, well, Mervyn Westfield made his First Class debut, picking up 6 wickets @ 30 in his three appearances, while Tony Palladino produced an impressive analysis of 24.4-6-68-6 against Leicestershire early on in the season, despite us losing the game. In the one day arena, Bopara’s 18 @ 26 must have amplified his shout for an England spot, while young pace prospect Jahid Ahmed claimed 10 wickets @ just 17 in his four matches.

Probable Championship side:
Chopra (Cookie when not on England duty)
Irani (capt)
Foster (wk)
Ten Doeschate

Tim Phillips will hopefully get the nod if the wickets are turning, probably in place of Ten Doeschate (one to look out for at the World Cup, playing for the Netherlands), while the one day competitions should allow for plenty of rotation. Graham Napier will have to vastly improve on his 2006 performance with the ball (1 wicket at a cost of 203 runs) to stake a claim for a quick slot in the Championship, and Palladino or Ahmed may be a better bet to come through. Would be good to pluck another diamond batsman from the youth set-up, a la Cook and Bopara, too…

Key Man:
Kaneria. I’m going for the Pakistani leggy because Essex have come to rely on the guile of their spinners more and more in recent seasons, and if the wickets are low and flat, he may be the key to bowling sides out twice, match-after-match-after-match. If he can form something of a partnership with either Jamie Middlebrook or Tim Phillips, and repeat the trick of 2004, when he took 63 wickets @ 25 (the best season’s return by an Essex bowler in the 21st Century), we might be back in the big time again.

Rising Star(s):
Well, if Bopara’s star hasn’t already peaked, another season of assured batting should see him really make the grade. If he can collect a thousand runs, regulars to the County Ground will be happy. Elsewhere, Varun Chopra should get a sustained chance to impress with the willow. With the ball, Ahmed may be unleashed in the Championship, while the pacy young Mervyn Westfield could be a decent prospect. And keep an eye out for young leg spinner, Risbah Shah, who’s only just turned 15.

Captain and Coach:
Ronnie has shown his nous for several seasons now, and I’m happy that he’ll continue to lead from the front (as long as he’s not crocked!) Mighty Graham Gooch, last seen leading England to beach cricket glory in Aus, should continue to be a source of inspiration to the lads; and after funding several of the squad to go overseas during the close season, we’ll hopefully reap the rewards. A promotion-winning partnership, methinks…


Chrispy said...

Good stuff, it will be great to see Bopara come on further and even better if Chopra can step up to join Pettini and Cookie. Pettini should be aiming for ODI's, but will face stiff competition.

I always feel Essex will do well, but for whatever reason they never transfer their one day form into the first class arena and losing Goughie won't help their cause. Bichel is a great one day bowler though and Nel may be able to bring the aggression that could start off a promotion charge. Kaneria obviously is just looking to take that final step to become world class.

allrounder said...

Indeed, Essex have tended to yo-yo a bit in County terms since the divisions were created. Bowling remains the problem, but Nel's pretty decent at Test level, so I'll be looking forward to seeing him.

Wor Ravi did alright yesterday to...

Chrispy said...

If the England management have much sense, which is debateable, you will not be seeing much of young Ravi this summer!