Exasperated by England's travails in Kiwi? Well, then let the gentile delights of county cricket refresh your senses. Yes, it's season preview time again...
2007 in a nutshell:
A season of great promise for the Eagles once again petered out to nothingness... so no surprises there then. As well as missing out on promotion from County Championship Div2, we suffered the ignominy of throwing away our top flight status in the Pro40, despite beginning the campaign as title-holders. This was particularly disappointing after a strong showing in the Friends Provident Trophy which was ended in the semi-finals at the hands of eventual winners, Durham. The Championship was something of a mixed bag, with several wins being garnered in spite of poor performances; however, the losses of Ronnie Irani, Andy Flower and Darren Gough eventually told, and the team fairly limped their way to fourth sport, well off the pace set by Somerset and Nottinghamshire. Inconsistencies aside, Essex did share an incredible run haul with Notts in a record-breaking match played out at the height of the summer: both teams reached 700 in their first innings, with rival England 'keepers James Foster and Chris Read each notching a double-hundred, the latter's being a career first.
Essex always seem fairly industrious over the close season, and, having brought in a couple of seasoned pros and blooded some youngsters on tour, there are reasons to be cheerful. Jason Gallian has arrived from Notts, and can be expected to open the batting, possibly allowing new captain Mark Pettini to drop down the order. Fast bowler David Masters will hopefully prove a more successful signing than Darren Thomas did last year, while bits-and-pieces youngster Christopher Wright may find opportunities to develop on the Chelmsford greensward. Graham Napier could be set for a watershed season after performing with some success in New Zealand over the winter, while Tom Westley, who took 7 for 131 in an U19 Test and hit 72 late last season against Somerset is an exciting prospect. As ever, escaping the Div 2 monkey knife-fight will be the goal, as well as thrashing it around in the short form. Some Twenty20 success would go down like warm milk and cookies...
Normally Essex's trusty redoubt, we were disappointingly scratchy out in the middle during 2007. After Ronnie Irani had blazed his way to more than 400 runs at an average of 116.25 in the first four Championship meetings, his retirement left everyone else to muddle along, with the result that no one reached 1,000 runs for the season. Ravi Bopara returned a Championship-best 900 runs at 60-odd, and Ryan ten Doeschate impressed low down the order with 845 @ 42.25 but too often the recognised batsmen failed.
The form of opener Pettini was woeful, his high-score of 86* coming during an engineered result against Leicestershire, and taking on the demands of captaincy at just 23-years-old clearly had a stultifying effect on his batting. With Alastair Cook on international duty for much of the summer, Varun Chopra struggled to cope in his first full campaign, and it was frequently left to the likes of Foster, still pressing an England case, and overseas star Andy Bichel (who averaged 60.25, with two fine swashbuckling centuries) to ease the team out of trouble.
In one-day competition only Bopara contributed regularly, totting up more than 400 at an average of better than 40. Good performances in the FP Trophy - where even Chopra and Pettini crashed hundreds, in a nine-wicket win over Middlesex - tailed off when the Pro40 defence began, to the point that only four half-centuries were scored by Essex batsmen in the six contested matches.
While our two main imports from 'for'n parts' collected 115 wickets between them at a little above 20 apiece - Danish Kaneria, 74 @ 22.2; Bichel, 41 @ 20.53 - the next highest return was James Middlebrook's 24 at a price of 40-odd. In fact, nine other bowlers, including Andre Nel in his brief spell and the on-loan Martin Saggers, took just 75 wickets between them, costing more than 40 each.
As in recent seasons, the load fell heavily on the bouncing frame of Kaniera, who sent more than his fair share of teams to defeat and finished a remarkable third in the PCA's inaugural Most Valuable Player ranking. Unfortunately the 'spin twins', Middlebrook and Tim Phillips (who Essex seem intent on turning into a batsman, despite a first-class average of 19), could only provide intermittent support. The bowling highlight, skittling eventual-champs Somerset for 152 in a match we would surely have won but for a lost fourth day, was down to Bichel's 6fer - but no one other than him, Kaneria and Saggers managed five wickets in an innings.The one faint spark came in the final Championship fixture against Middlesex, where an attack deprived of both the Pakistani leggie and the Aussie allrounder took 20 wickets for 400, Tony Palladino's match analysis of 6-for-97 the pick. In the one-dayers, several players chipped in despite the ultimate disappointment, with Bichel and Kaneria once again to the fore and Bopara, Napier and Ten Doeschate all claiming respectable figures.
Probable Championship side:
Chopra (Cook when not on
It seems likely that Essex will build their batting around a hardy middle-order of Bopara, Ten Doeschate, Foster and Middlebrook, while Graham Napier and Tim Phillips will probably compete as utility allrounders depending on whether the pitch is taking spin or seam. The bowling line-up is by no means settled, and Mervyn Westfield or Jamaica-born Maurice Chambers could come into contention. Pettini should drop down to accommodate the pressures of the captaincy, while Kaneria's contributions will again be vital. Expect some experimentation in the short game, with possible appearances from the veteran Grant Flower and young quick Jahid Ahmed.
Although the obvious choice is Kaneria, who bettered his 2004 return with last summer's performances, I'm going to plump for Ravi Bopara. After a tough winter in Sri Lanka with England, where his Test career did not get off to the most auspicious of starts, Ravi will have to hit his straps back in the county milieu in order to prove his reputation again. He needs to plunder runs in the four-day format, and chip in with more wickets than he did last year (11 @ 45), while continuing his development as a watchful, wristy one-day batsman who can also knock over a couple of the opposition's top-order with the cherry in hand.
Tom Westley is the name on Essexonians lips (well, it should be anyway) and the lad looks set to feature in the Championship sooner rather than later. Already averaging just over 30 from a handful of first-class innings, it would be a pleasure to see him in action at the County Ground in his first season since signing on full professional terms. Other prospects include Jaik Mickleburgh (batsman) and Adam Wheater (wicketkeeper/batsman), who both played on the recently completed pre-season tour to Dubai.
Captain and Coach:
Mark Pettini has struggled to combine both the tactical and man-management aspects of the captaincy with an effective personal contribution, and this season will be an important test of his mettle. As the county circuit's youngest captain he will need to rely on new head coach Paul Grayson's experience to ensure a successful partnership through 2008. Much is required, but expectations should probably remain modest. Graham Gooch, who has ploughed funds into Essex's scholarship scheme, remains as batting coach, while there may even be a few words of wisdom floating over the boundary rope from the sainted Ronni Irani at some point...