It can be said of any sport that sometimes the most difficult feat to achieve is not in winning the title in the first place but in retaining it.
Essex were clearly the outstanding team in the County Championship in 2017, not only did they go the entire season without defeat but they won a most impressive ten games from the 14 fixtures played. To put that in context, Middlesex won six games to win the title in 2016 in a season of 16 matches.
If Essex are to retain the title in 2018 it will have to be done without the guidance of the excellent Chris Silverwood; his knowledge and leadership skills didn’t go unnoticed at the ECB and they wasted no time in appointing him as England’s bowling coach in October last year.
Continuity is the key at Essex and so it seemed a relatively straightforward decision to promote last year’s assistant coach, Anthony McGrath, into the top job. There will be no major fundamental changes in strategy but you would imagine McGrath will inspire new ideas in order to keep things fresh for the champions, who will once again be led by the astute Ryan ten Doeschate.
While the coaching structure may have had a reshuffle Essex haven’t felt the need to be overactive in the transfer market, Matt Coles has made the short trip from Kent and will add depth to the pace bowling ranks.
Batsmen Tom Westley and Daniel Lawrence both picked up hand/finger injuries in the winter while on tour with the England Lions and Jamie Porter suffered a stress fracture of the back. The encouraging news is that Porter recovered in time for the Lions tour of the Caribbean earlier this year and Westley and Lawrence both hope to be fit for the start of the season.
Ins: Matt Coles (Kent), Feroze Khushi (Yth)
Outs: Kishen Velani (Released)
Much of Essex’s success in the Championship in 2017 was built around the wickets and threat posed by both Simon Harmer and Jamie Porter. Harmer either occupied an end leaking very few runs or exploited conditions if there was any assistance in the pitch (perhaps footmarks created by Essex’s left-arm quicks) for his old-style yet hugely effective off-spin.
Harmer’s first season at Chelmsford as a Kolpak recruit saw him capture 72 wickets at an average of 19.19, an economy rate of 2.65 was equally impressive and no doubt contributed to a few wickets taken down the other end. Chief beneficiary was Porter, the only bowler to claim more wickets than Harmer in the Championship last season, with 75 scalps.
It is not just in England where Harmer has excelled in the last 12 months. He has maintained his outstanding form throughout the Sunfoil Series back in South Africa; his 46 wickets so far have taken his franchise side, the Warriors, to the top of the table and in sight of a first title victory since 1992, he also happens to skipper the side as well.
Player to Watch
There will be opening batsmen all over the country closely monitoring the form of Mark Stoneman for England in New Zealand aware that, if he fails to totally convince, there could be a vacancy by the time Pakistan arrive for the first home Test series towards the end of May.
If it’s consistent runs at the top of the order England are after then Nick Browne must be a strong contender, a good start to the season could well propel Browne into England reckoning.
Browne had another solid season in 2017, he made 952 runs at 43.27. He may not possess the eye catching strokeplay but he has vital qualities for a man striding out to face the new ball. He is patient enough to wait for the ball to be in his stronger areas and as demonstrated with the county record-breaking opening partnership with Alastair Cook of 373, he can bat for very long periods.
Peter Siddle (Australia), Neil Wagner (New Zealand), Adam Zampa (Australia)
How they’ll fare
Last season is a very tough act to follow and while there is no prioritisation in any of the competitions the appointment of Dimitri Mascarenhas as assistant coach should enhance their chances in the shorter formats.
Success in one-day cricket has been in short supply in the last decade, narrowly missing out on a spot in the Royal London One-Day Cup final last season despite posting a challenging total of 370 against Nottinghamshire.
The Championship, however, is the bread and butter and the competition this squad looks most capable in. They have the bowlers to take 20 wickets in a game but there will be pressure on Harmer and Porter to reproduce their fantastic form and there is plenty of runs in the squad too with five batsmen averaging over 40 last year.
Back-to-back titles is a tough ask and Essex won’t be the surprise package in 2018, they’re the side every other county in Division One will want to be beat, but Essex seem to have everything in place for another strong campaign.
SSCC vs Yorkshire, Friday 13th April at Emerald Headingley.
SS County Championship Division 1: 11/4
Royal London One-Day Cup: 14/1
Vitality Twenty20 Blast: 12/1