(Photo: Getty Images)
By Chris Stocks
IF following up last summer’s unexpected Championship title win wasn’t hard enough, Essex’s task became even harder when they lost head coach Chris Silverwood to England over the winter.
In his place has stepped Anthony McGrath, who served as Silverwood’s assistant in the past two seasons during which the club was promoted to Division One as champions, following that up with the title in their first season back in the top flight.
Although unbeaten in 2017, Essex’s first target this summer will surely be to secure their Division One status. After all, 2016 champions Middlesex were relegated last summer.
It’s a fate McGrath also suffered when a player at Yorkshire following their 2001 Championship win.
Reality hit home for Essex when they were thrashed by an innings in the recent Champion County game against MCC in Barbados.
“To win this league you do many good things,” said McGrath. “What we’ve got to do is focus on what we did well and then, obviously, improve on what we didn’t do well.
“There is a different kind of pressure this season; I guess it’s an expectation from the outside for us to repeat last year. But from within the dressing room it’s very similar.
“The last two years have gone unbelievably well and last year in particular winning the Championship. We’re coming from a position of strength, we’ve got a lot of good things in place but we can’t stand still. Teams are not going to be surprised by us now, we’ve got to look at how we can evolve the four-day team and maybe tweak a few plans. We’ve got a similar squad and a confident squad, it’s how we deal with the expectations of success.”
Essex’s squad is a good mix of youth and experience. On the batting front they will hope opener Nick Browne, Dan Lawrence and Tom Westley, who all averaged above 40 in the Championship last summer, can improve.
They will also have Alastair Cook back for the matches against Yorkshire and Worcestershire next month ahead of England’s Test series against Pakistan.
On the bowling side, Jamie Porter will hope to emulate his remarkable success of the past two summers, with his 75 wickets at 16.82 last season crucial to the title success.
Young fast bowlers Aaron Beard and Sam Cook also have room to step up, while spinner Simon Harmer, who took 72 wickets in his first season at Chelmsford, is a key weapon in an attack that will also have Peter Siddle and Neil Wagner as overseas imports.
Browne admits the loss to MCC was not ideal but is hopeful the squad will be ready to hit the ground running when Essex’s season starts against Yorkshire at Headingley next Friday.
“It was disappointing,” said Browne. “All the batters actually looked in good touch, we just seemed to find ways to get out on a slow wicket. But I think it was good for the batters to have a hit out and to actually play a proper game is good for us.
“This game was disappointing but we’ve got to put that to one side and move on to the season. We’re looking for that perfect performance against Yorkshire – that’s the main goal.”
Essex came up with the perfect performance plenty of times last season as they won ten of their 14 matches.
That will, undoubtedly, be hard to emulate but they should at least be spared losing any players to England, with Westley seemingly unlikely to receive a recall after his disappointing debut Test summer in 2016 and Lawrence and Browne likely to be a little too far down the pecking order to be considered just yet.