With England's thrashing of the Windies being of such resounding magnitude that it could be heard all the way to South America, it's the County Championship that may provide this summer's intrigue. And following the Essex lads from afar, I couldn't help but stop a moment to acknowledge the sad truncation of our captain's season. I'd hoped to see Ronnie Irani out in the middle some time during September (when I get back from me travels), as the sun finally set on his time with the Eagles - but a crocked knee has taken him from us early (oh, why do the good always die young?) and it's only in my mind's eye that he'll ever take guard again...
Arriving in Chelmsford from the more northerly environs of Lancashire, Ronnie quickly established himself as a favourite at the County Ground - although he never did manage to shed the accent! A combative allrounder, he was the obvious choice to take on the captaincy in the wake of Paul Prichard's retirement and Nasser Hussain's increased commitment with England, and, I'm sure he'd be pleased to know, he always did us proud. Despite announcing recently that he would hang up his bat at the end of the season, his reign has ended early, leaving a gap in the line-up we'll be pressed to fill.
Whether he was bustling in to unleash his niggardly medium pace, or flaying the ball around at a fair old strike rate with willow in hand, his ability as a player was clear; despite never being quite able to translate this to the international arena. At his best in the one day game, he guided Essex to National League success in 2005 and 2006, as well as the last ever Benson and Hedges Cup final in 2002 (unfortunately not a great day out, as I recall). His strongest international analysis also came in limited overs, with 5 for 26 and 53, in the same match against India. As a Test player, his sum total of three appearances offers little opportunity for highlights, but I can vividly remember railing incandescently against a bum decision thrown Ronnie's way (given LBW, despite being outside the line) in the disastrous 1999 home series against New Zealand.
He didn't need luck so much on the County circut though, and it was as an increasingly accomplished batsman in the longer game that the last few seasons have been most notable for. With knee trouble forcing the right-arm away swingers to be packed up in the kitbag for good, he began performing solely in the top order from the 2004 season onwards, and consistently averaged around the 60 mark; his bankability helping go a long way to making up for the loss of such stalwarts as Nasser Hussain, Paul Grayson and, more recently, Andy Flower. Before making known his plans to retire, Reggie was averaging over a hundred, having hit a career-high score of 218 in the second game of the Championship at home to Glamorgan. Sadly, the knees couldn't quite make it.
With some of the young, talented players Essex have brought on recently, I'm not too worried about the batting (it looks like Grant Flower's staking his claim as 'veteran run-getter' at the moment too), although, as Richard has noted below, Mark Pettini and Varun Chopra could do with a few big scores at the top of the order. The captaincy issue is perhaps a little more crucial, and I'd be tempted to let Pettini concentrate on his game by throwing Jamie Middlebrook, or even Andy Bichel, the proverbial armband. However, it's more as a presence in and around the team that Irani will be chiefly missed.
Always a jovial, friendly cricketer, his captaincy engineered us a few wins we might not otherwise have had, and his honesty and connection with the fans were much respected. I would imagine he'll remain in the coaching set-up, once he's properly back on his feet, and it'd be great to see him standing on the balcony outside the changing rooms when I get along to the ground later in the summer. I'll always enjoy the memory of his clobbering Shane Warne out of the ground in one Warney's first few games at Hampshire; as well as some of the thunderous strokes he employed in Essex's recent one day ascendency. But it's the simple, incongruous-sounding, familiar three sylables in the middle-order of the Essex scorecard that I'll pine for most of all.
Cheers, R. C., you done good.