Such was the relief that came with Essex’s promotion back in September that, for most fans at least, the aims of 2017 can simply be surmised in just one word: survival.
The Chelmsford club finally ended their Division 2 hiatus at the sixth time of asking last year, a long-overdue return to the upper echelon for a side boasting six titles to their name.
They were to do it the hard way too, defying heartbreaks and third-placed finishes to take the sole spot out of the league – back where they feel they belong exactly 25 years after last lifting the County Championship trophy.
Yet with two out of eight top-flight teams to suffer relegation come the season’s end, a far from easy challenge awaits the East Anglians this summer.
That’s something they may also have to do without fortress Chelmsford, unlikely to gamble on the seam-friendly green tops they’ve become accustomed to with teams having the ability to bowl first without the need of a toss.
As well as their four-day exploits, Essex attention will also be on the limited-overs competitions, keen to build on the consistency that has seen them close but yet so far across both formats.
The Eagles reached the Natwest T20 Blast last-eight for a fifth successive year last term, only for a catastrophic collapse against Nottinghamshire leading them to miss out on Finals Day for the third time running.
Close but no cigar was to be a theme of their Royal London One-Day Cup exploits too, missing out to perennial nemesis Warwickshire in the quarter-final stage.
But, should ability nor desire lead to a blend between the three formats, then Essex’s explosive talent may spend a season finding their feet before unleashing the fireworks and an assault on a rare piece of silverware.
Ins: Adam Wheater (Hampshire), Simon Harmer (Kolpak), Neil Wagner (Lancashire)
Outs: Graham Napier, David Masters (both retired), Thomas Moore, Matthew Cross, Jaik Mickleburgh (all released)
Key Player – Tom Westley
Scoring the most runs across both the Specsavers County Championship and Natwest T20 Blast competitions for his county last year, Tom Westley certainly enjoyed a season with the willow.
Considered one of the best batsman around the shires yet to play for England, Westley will have his country’s former captain watching on from close proximity, set to turn out for the earlier parts of the season.
But the 28-year-old showed last year he has the bottle with or without Alastair Cook’s viewership, scoring more than 1,000 runs at an average greater than 50 for the season, with 254 against Worcestershire the particular highlight.
The challenge this time around will be whether he can follow that up in Division One, with the pressure of carrying his side forward combined with a plethora of bowling attacks capable of taking 20 wickets a match.
Westley has also proven himself a destructive batsman when the situation calls, striking the most Blast runs with 403 at a strike rate of 126 last term.
That, coupled with his ever-growing Chelmsford experience, is sure to stand him in good stead as the lynchpin of the Essex batting unit in their bid for survival.
Player to Watch – Varun Chopra
While his 29 years far from suggest an up and coming talent, Varun Chopra’s return to Chelmsford will itself feel like a prodigy making their way back to familiar ground.
Originally starting out in East Anglia, the opener’s switch to Warwickshire has not bore as much fruit as perhaps hoped, in his last season at Edgbaston at least.
That saw him move back to Essex midway through the campaign, but this shot at a full season in red could see a much-needed return to form for a batsman who was once part of the England Lions plans.
She’ll join an already formidable batting unit across the formats, with his trophy-laden experience in the Midlands surely something the Eagles will tap into as he looks to add to the 26 centuries he has amassed in all competitions.
That includes a List A average of 42.75 – remarkably more than his first-class equivalent – though he hasn’t played in the format since 2015 having missed out all of last season.
Essex was also the place where Chopra shone in his formative years, making a century on Championship debut in 2006, becoming the second youngest man to achieve three figures for the county when just 18.
Overseas Signings – Neil Wagner and Mohammad Amir
An indefatigable left-arm seamer, according to his ESPNCricinfo verdict at least, Neil Wagner has spent the past few years adding a wicket-taking knack to his tenacious, workmanlike attitude.
The New Zealand quick has rapidly become one of the key names in the Test arena, with his heart and soul displays on the park likely to rub favourably with the Essex members in a similar stroke to that of the Antipodes.
Wagner is, at the time of writing, embarking on his 32nd Black Caps Test match as he looks to propel his bowling average from a healthy 28.64 to a more miserly haul of under 25.
Moreover, with a first-class batting average of 15.66 from 170 innings, county cricket can at least welcome back its very own bunny. He’ll be available for the first half of the Championship season as well as the Royal London One-Day Cup.
His departure will pave the way for Pakistan fast bowler Mohammad Amir to join Chelmsford from June 19.
A controversial figure due to his ban for spot fixing, there’s no doubting the talent of the quick having regained his place in his country’s Test plans.
The 24-year-old left-armer will join Essex following international commitments and will be available for all formats.
How they’ll fare
With just six teams surviving in Division One in the latest county reshuffle, Essex are likely to have their work cut out in their survival attempt.
That being said, they boast one of the strongest batting units they could hope for, with the most difficult challenge at times being how to fit all the options into one XI.
Ryan ten Doeschate takes the armband across all three formats, while Westley, Chopra, Cook, Dan Lawrence, Ravi Bopara, Nick Browne, Adam Wheater and James Foster will all bidding for the willow.
But, last season was one of goodbyes for Essex, with Graham Napier and David Masters both riding off into the sunset, taking with them a wealth of bowling experience.
County stalwarts and Chelmsford legends, their absences will be hard-felt as more than 1000 senior games depart from the game. With Wagner and then Amir joining forces with Aaron Beard, Matt Dixon, Aron Nijjar, Jamie Porter and Matt Quinn needing to take a lot of responsibility on their shoulders this term.
Survival is a definite possibility, but wins will be the key with big points the prize, so long as they can take 20 wickets in a match.
v Lancashire, Friday 7th April, Cloudfm County Ground
Specsavers County Championship: 16/1
Royal London One Day Cup: 16/1
Natwest T20 Blast: 14/1