The 2014 season ended in disappointment at Chelmsford with Essex narrowly missing out in all three competitions. Despite winning their final five County Championship matches, Paul Grayson’s men missed out on promotion whilst one day hopes were dashed by Warwickshire at the quarter-final stage in both tournaments.
There is little doubt that the players will still be hurting from last year’s near misses, but they will also be buoyed by the progress they showed across all three formats. A combination of injuries and poor weather hampered their chances in the County Championship, so a good start against rivals Kent and a Surrey side containing Kevin Pietersen will be vital if they are to challenge this season.
The Eagles may feel their strongest suit remains in the limited overs arena where the firepower of Jesse Ryder and Graham Napier can help lead a push for silverware. The County Ground is renowned as being a tough place to visit on summer evenings and it is about time the partisan crowd was rewarded with on field success. The trophy cabinet has been bare since the Friends Provident triumph in 2008 and another lean season will pile the pressure on players and management.
Much of the pressure will once again fall on the shoulders of inspirational captain and wicket-keeper James Foster who will look to replicate his 2014 form. The experienced members of the squad will be backed up by talented youngsters such as Tom Westley and Matt Salisbury, whose breakthrough last summer demonstrates the potential coming through the Essex Academy. Although the loss of Ben Foakes and Tymal Mills during the winter saddened some members, Grayson is confident that his long term vision for the club will reap rewards.
Ins: Shaun Tait (T20 only), Callum Taylor (Youth), Liam Gough (Trialist), Aron Nijjar (Trialist), Saf Imtiaz (Trialist)
Outs: Ben Foakes (Surrey), Tymal Mills (Sussex), Sajid Mahmood (Released), Tom Craddock (Released), Tim Phillips (Retired)
The highlight of the 2014 season for many Essex supporters was the transformation of Tom Westley from an exciting prospect to a proven performer. The classy opening batsman was an ever present in the County Championship but it was in the limited overs tournaments that he really shone. An average of 57 in the Royal London One Day Cup a strike rate of 148 in the T20 Blast illustrated how he can combine a stylish technique with big hitting when required. The most striking example of this was against Kent at Colchester where an innings of 105 from 58 balls helped steer the Eagles to victory. He also chipped in with the ball as his off spin claimed 15 victims at a miserly economy rate. Add in his athleticism in the field and it is clear to see why he scooped the Essex Player of the Year Award and received a call up to the England Performance Programme. The 26-year old has spent the winter working on his game in Sri Lanka where he has represented Bloomfield in first-class cricket. He will now be hoping to have another stellar year on the county circuit and help his team win that elusive trophy.
Player to Watch
Essex have an abundance of home grown talent coming through and Nick Browne is one player who will be looking to make a big impact in 2015. A prolific run scorer in youth and 2nd XI cricket, the left handed opening batsman made his full debut in 2013. He has already impressed in first-class cricket with a solid technique and relaxed attitude helping him achieve an average of 42 from his first twelve matches. The standout performance of his career to date came at Chesterfield last summer against Derbyshire where he became the first Essex player to score two unbeaten hundreds in a County Championship match. This was followed by a century in the final match of the season against a strong Worcestershire attack which earned him a new two year contract at Chelmsford. Browne was also awarded the Young Player of the Season award and the club hope that he can follow in the footsteps of Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara onto the international scene in the future. He has been representing Mosman in Australian grade cricket during the close season with the aim of improving his one-day skills. If he can continue his development in 2015 he could play a major role for Essex across all three formats.
Paul Grayson was delighted to secure the services of Jesse Ryder until 2016 when he put pen to paper at the end of last season. The New Zealander had a big impact for Essex in his debut season and the supporters will be looking forward to seeing him in action again this year. Arriving in England with a pedigree as a destructive batsman, it was surprisingly with the ball where he had most success in the County Championship. He ended as the side’s leading wicket taker in the four day game as his accuracy and swing saw him collect four five-wicket hauls. He came into his own with the bat during the Royal London One Day Cup where he averaged a remarkable 92 to help the Eagles reach the knockout stages. He will be targeting a better return in the T20 Blast this season where he will be joined by Shaun Tait who has re-signed for the club. The Australian paceman represented Essex well in 2013 when he claimed 16 victims as they reached the semi-finals. If Ryder and Tait can find their best form, Chelmsford will be a dangerous place for opposition batsmen and bowlers alike this summer.
How they’ll fare
Whilst Essex will hope to be contenders in every competition this summer, the priority for Paul Grayson is to earn promotion to Division One of the County Championship. They have a well-balanced squad capable of achieving this goal but it will not be easy with the bookmakers predicting Lancashire and Surrey to edge them out. The absence of Ravi Bopara and Ryan ten Doeschate due to Indian Premier League commitments in April and May will be a big blow and could lead to Academy graduates getting a chance to shine. They will also be sweating over the fitness of left arm seamer Reece Topley who missed much of last season with a back injury.
Many people believe the Eagles could be triumphant in the T20 Blast with Ryder and Tait helping to support a team of proven one day performers. Beaten semi-finalists on four occasions, 2015 may offer the best opportunity for success yet in the shortest format. The Royal London One Day Cup is also well within their reach as long as they do not freeze during the knockout matches. Not blessed with the spending power of counties which host Test match cricket, Essex continue to punch above their weight and it is now time for them to turn talent into trophies.
v Kent, Sunday 19th April at Chelmsford
LV County Championship Division Two: 9/2
Royal London One-Day Cup: 12/1
Natwest Twenty20 Blast: 12/1