Such was the strength of Essex’s Specsavers County Championship squad this year, anything less than promotion from Division Two would surely have been considered a failure in East Anglia.
At any given time across the season, as many as four internationals, two county stalwarts and three of the country’s most highly-sought after batsmen could turn out at Chelmsford – and that’s before you even factor in seven matches from England captain Alastair Cook.
It’s been a long journey to get to this point for Essex. Since relegation in 2010, the ultimate goal has always been to return a promised land seemingly missing its key component, a sort of unwarranted justice in not being part of the club.
But they were able to return there in style, losing three games across the season – one of which coming with promotion all but secured when Glamorgan prevailed by 11 runs.
Aside from that, the season held substance, a particular nuance and determination brought in by Chris Silverwood, head coach since last November. The week before the Glamorgan loss, 600 was racked up against Worcestershire, with time to declare before winning by an innings and 169 runs.
That victory against the Pears – potential title rivals for the season – summed up Essex’s season. With just one team earning promotion this campaign, many expected the challenge to get tougher, but a will to win brought Essex back to Division One. They will be one of county cricket’s elite eight next season.
With such a focused challenge in mind, it was more than understandable for the one-day competitions to lose their place on the priorities list.
Despite that, Essex once again managed to reach the T20 Blast quarter-final stage for a fifth successive year, but failed to get beyond the last eight for a third year in a row.
Squeezing through in fourth place in the South Group, a tricky trip to Nottinghamshire awaited, but when the hosts made 162-7 from their 20 overs – including a miserly 4-19 from Ryan ten Doeschate – there was hope that an upset of the apple cart could be in store, and a place at Finals Day the reward.
But despite a Jesse Ryder blitz that saw the New Zealander smite ten early fours, his wicket proved the catalyst for a Trent Bridge collapse, ten wickets falling for 58 runs as Essex were bundled out for 123. The spin trio of Samit Patel, Steven Mullaney and Imran Tahir accounted for seven of those as 12 overs went for no more than a run a ball.
It was to be a similar tale in the Royal London One-Day Cup too, where limited overs nemeses of recent years, Warwickshire, were to wait in the last eight.
Chelmsford had once again become a fortress for success in the group stages, taking three wins from their first four matches in the competition – the other saw a thrilling tie against Somerset – as Essex took third place in the South Group.
You wondered if, with a start like they had, a top two finish and a subsequent home quarter-final should have been the expectation, but a trip to Edgbaston was to come instead.
Once again, spin proved the enemy through the triumvirate of Ateeq Javid, Josh Poysden and soon-to-be international Jeetan Patel, as Essex slipped up to the eventual One-Day Cup winners.
They’ll become next season’s aims, ending a trophy-less period far too long for the members to be occupied. But for the season gone, the key was firmly secured.
Player of the Season: Tom Westley
Scoring the highest number of runs in both four-day and 20-over formats, it’s no wonder many are talking about Tom Westley being the next big thing in English batting. The 27-year-old also has experience on his side, adding to his figures by scoring more than 1,200 runs at an average better than 50 in the County Championship, supplemented by 403 in the Natwest T20 Blast.
But his moment in the sun was to come in the dying embers of the season. With England captain Alastair Cook watching on, Westley bludgeoned a 15th first-class century, with Worcestershire on the end of his mercurial 254, a best tally for the batsman in the format.
Breakthrough Player: Daniel Lawrence
It was last season when Dan Lawrence broke into the history books, at 17 years of age becoming the third youngest County Championship centurion, but showed he had the mettle for more by playing all but one of Essex’s four-day games this term. Given a chance in a star-studded line-up, Lawrence plundered 154 batting at six against Leicestershire in August, while his wily spin has also developed into a skill of its own, now sitting with ten wickets at an average better than 20 from T20 competition.
Could have done better: Kishen Velani
It wasn’t to be the breakthrough season some had expected of Kishen Velani, limited to just a handful of games, unable to secure a regular spot across any format. Chances were at a premium, with Velani playing in just two County Championship games across the season, scoring just 41 runs, both coming late in the season. Three centuries in three weeks in second XI action suggest signs of promise, with the batsmen hoping potential can turn into performance in coming seasons.
Need to work on
For Essex, next season will almost be as much of a balance as the one just gone. One-day honours – with the number of canny all-rounders they possess – will surely be high on the agenda, but priority will likely be on Division One survival, a tough ask with just eight teams in the division. Resigning Varun Chopra from Warwickshire and Hampshire’s Adam Wheater suggest good business, with both previously having experience of the upper echelon.
It was a season of goodbyes for Essex, with Graham Napier and David Masters both riding off into the sunset. County stalwarts and Chelmsford legends, their absences will be hard-felt as more than 1000 senior games depart from the game. Essex have shown they can cope without star bowlers, notably Reece Topley, but this will surely provide a different kettle of fish in East Anglia.
SSCC: Champions, Division Two
T20 Blast: Quarter Finals (4th, South Group)
RLODC: Quarter Finals (3rd, South Group)
Leading run-scorers: SSCC: Tom Westley – 1217 @ 52.91; T20 Blast: Tom Westley – 403 – SR: 126.72; RLODC: Jesse Ryder – 435 @ 54.37
Leading wicket-takers: SSCC: Jamie Porter – 55 @ 29.32; T20 Blast: Graham Napier – 22 – Econ: 8.51; RLODC: Graham Napier – 12 – Econ: 6.22
Win %: 43.5%
Mission accomplished for Essex, their main aim was to get out of Division Two, and they have done so with ease. Finishing 23 points clear of second-placed Kent is perhaps just given the season at Canterbury, while two limited-overs quarter-finals suggest they weren’t taking their eye off the ball there either.