Friday, 15 April 2011

Essex: 2011 season preview

2010 in a nutshell

One-day fun days accompanied by self-destruction in the championship. A first season in Division One since 2003 ended, as it had done on the two previous occasions that Essex reached the top tier, with relegation. After thumping eventual champions Notts and drawing with Yorkshire in July, Essex had 107 points from 11 matches and faced relegation rivals Warwickshire (twice) and Kent in their final five games. They lost four (only drawing with Durham after relegation was confirmed), bowled out for less than 200 seven times in 14 innings, and mustering just 19 points. You don't have to be Good Will Hunting to work out that equation.

Still, there was the usual proficiency in the short forms to enjoy. Ryan ten Doeschate, despite missing a chunk of the season with injury, showcased the abilities that would later inspire the Netherlands at the World Cup, while Ravi Bopara and the ever-in-bloom Grant Flower (who notched two 40-over tons at the age of 39) also scored heavily as Essex reached the semi-finals of both the Twenty20 Cup and the CB40 competition. However, Dwayne Bravo was bussed in to fairly disastrous effect for T20 finals day, while a Trescothick-inspired Somerset ended hopes of a fourth one-day title in six years.

2010 prospects

I write this after the first game of the season (defeat to Kent) and in the midst of a first-innings collapse against Middlesex, so the forecast looks a little bleak right now. The addition of Owais Shah (currently at the IPL with Ten Doeschate) should strengthen the batting, while the return to the second tier will hopefully give the likes of Jaik Mickleburgh, Tom Westley and Billy Godleman further opportunities to develop. The bowling attack, led by the supremely reliable David Masters and with South Africa's Lonwabe Tsotsobe as overseas player, looks as good as any in Division Two - if, unusually for Essex, a little light on spin options.

However, if Bopara joins Alastair Cook on England duty for much of the summer and the likes of Mark Pettini and Matthew Walker fail to contribute significantly, captain James Foster is going to need shoulders like Atlas to lead Essex up again. The Eagles were somewhat fortunate (and probably unready) to win promotion two seasons ago, so don't be surprised to see them fiddle around in the middle of the Div Two pack in 2011. Essex's focus is likely to remain on both the one-day competitions - T20 at Chelmsford is the county's real money spinner, after all - and with Ten Does and Scott Styris in the side for the 20-over format, a real crack at lifting the trophy for the first time is expected.

Likely team

With everyone available, this would have been my first-choice line-up before the start of the season:

Cook, Mickleburgh, Shah, Bopara, Walker, Ten Doeschate, Foster (wk), Masters, Phillips/Wright, Tsotsobe, Chambers

However, with the emergence of Reece Topley (see below) and the absence of key players due to the IPL and international call-ups, the team is more likely to look something like this:

Godleman, Mickleburgh, Bopara/Pettini, Walker, Westley, Foster (wk), Phillips, Masters, Tsotsobe, Chambers, Topley/Wright

Key man

James Foster has had more than enough on his plate in recent seasons, what with keeping wicket to almost Russellian standards and maintaining a batting average in the 35+ region, all the while trying to catch the selectors' eye. Now he's got the captaincy to manage too. After the pressure proved too much for Pettini midway through last season, Foster carried out an adroit balancing act that didn't seem to greatly affect his form (he finished as joint leading run-scorer in the championship) - but he'll have to do the same in spades this year if he is not to be overwhelmed.

Rising star

Reece Topley - who doesn't even have a first-team profile on the Essex website - is a 6ft 7in 17-year-old with two five-wicket hauls to his name in as many championship appearances. The son of former Essex bowler Don Topley, Reece made his first-class debut against Cambridge at Fenners in March and is about as raw as 18 ounces of blue steak, but he seems able to extract swing as well as the bounce that comes with his lofty action. Comparisons with Steve Finn and Chris Tremlett are to be expected, though Essex should be wary of exposing such a prospect to the effects of burnout.

Coach and captain

Foster has taken on the armband, such as it is, and there is little doubt that he is the most inspirational of Essex's senior players. At 31, his England chances now appear to have receded terminally, but his nous at this level is invaluable. Paul Grayson remains head coach and he is as enthusiastic and straight-talking as ever. The Yorkshireman seems to recognise that the batting is too frequently of the papier mache variety - whether he can fix that, as a former top-order player himself, is the big question.

Prediction

Coloured by the dismal start (we're now following-on at Lord's), I'd say a four-day challenge is remote, given the amount of young players likely to make up the bulk of the side. Mid-table consolidation coupled with T20 mastery seems like the best outcome.

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