At the end of the 2017 season, newly promoted and unbeaten Essex were crowned as Specsavers County Champions. This year, instead of being the star guests at the celebration, they were more like the party poopers. By pulling off a last-gasp one wicket victory, they robbed Surrey, the new champions, of the chance to create their own unbeaten record.
In the process of that win, Essex produced an end to the season so exciting that, yet again, the virtues of the four-day game were evident to all those in attendance at the Oval.
When ECB chairman Colin Graves failed to appear to present the trophy, it was unclear whether he, like Achilles, was sulking in his tent or was simply too busy saving an allegedly dying sport.
Although Essex failed to emulate their success of the previous season, that is a feat that only Yorkshire have achieved in the last decade so third place was a reasonably satisfactory result.
Only Ravi Bopara averaged more than 40 with the bat and although Ryan ten Doeschate came close, more than a quarter of his runs came in one innings in the draw against Somerset.
Amongst the bowlers, Jamie Porter and Simon Harmer were outstanding with 58 and 57 wickets respectively. Such was the dominance of these two that their combined total of 115 wickets was three more than all the other bowlers put together – and that despite the fact that Peter Siddle was highly effective in the seven matches that he played, taking 37 wickets at only 16 runs apiece.
In the Royal London One Day Cup, Essex finished second in the South Group, winning five and losing three of their matches. This brought them a home quarter final against Yorkshire but their top order batting let them down. Although some tail-end heroics got them to within 25 of the opposition total, the result was never really in doubt.
Varun Chopra, who had a dismal four day season, clocked up 528 runs in the Royal London competition, at an average of 66. He was well supported by Ravi Bopara, Tom Westley and Adam Wheater.
Jamie Porter led the bowling attack with 12 wickets. Although Bopara and Neil Wagner took 23 wickets between them, they could not match either Porter’s average or his economy rate.
It might be best to draw a discreet veil over the Essex performance in the Vitality Blast. There were only small comforts to be drawn from a tournament in which they won just two matches out of 14.
It is true that the Eagles suffered three no-result matches. But then Kent and Sussex, who both qualified for the knock-out stages, each suffered four no-results. And there was little consolation in the fact that Hampshire and Middlesex finished below them. All three of the teams at the bottom were so inept that their combined total of six wins was less than the seven achieved by sixth county Glamorgan.
Chopra was again the top man with the bat in the Blast, topping 500 runs. Others gave reasonable support.
The main problem was the bowling. Three teams exceeded 200 against the Eagles and there were other embarrassments such as the ten-wicket defeat by Somerset.
Australian Adam Zampa took 12 wickets at 20.75 each and, along with Porter, was the most economical bowler. Overall, however, the team just wasn’t good enough at taking wickets. Zampa apart, just about everybody who bowled for Essex in the Blast averaged less than one wicket per game.
SSCC: third, Division One
T20 Blast: seventh, South Group
RLODC: second, South Group; lost in quarter-final
SSCC: Ravi Bopara – 751 runs
T20 Blast: Varun Chopra – 503 runs
RLODC: Varun Chopra – 528 runs
SSCC: Jamie Porter – 58 wickets; Simon Harmer – 57 wickets
T20 Blast: Adam Zampa – 12 wickets
RLODC: Jamie Porter and Neil Wagner – 12 wickets
Player of the season
The player of the season is Simon Harmer.
Over 600 runs, 71 wickets and 25 catches represents a good season’s work. The most successful off-spinner in the country, he seems to have made fully the transition from South Africa and is now very much an Essex man.
He is deservedly fifth in the PCA Overall Most Valuable Player Rankings for the season.
To be honest, we probably have to stretch the meaning of the word breakthrough to find someone who qualifies.
Only just 21, Sam Cook is a tall quick bowler who first made an impact at the end of the 2017 season. This year, having completed his degree at Loughborough, he played in 25 matches and took 36 wickets across all competitions. His best performance was when he took 5-28 against Yorkshire in the Championship in May, his victims including England players Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow.
He never quite hit those heights again, however. So breakthrough? Possibly not. But he does look to have the right attributes for a successful career.
Could have done better
It may be harsh to select Dan Lawrence as someone who could have done better. After all, he did score almost 1,000 runs in the three competitions. But the Young Cricketer of the Year for 2017 didn’t really push on this year. In the Championship, he scored a hundred against Hampshire but only passed 50 once more and averaged a mere 23.40.
No-one doubts his talent and there were signs in white-ball cricket that his four day form was a mere blip along the way to higher honours.
Need to work on
It is pretty obvious that Essex need to improve on their results in T20 cricket. There is an appetite for the shortest form of the game at Chelmsford so fans will not be content with some of the performances that they witnessed this year.
With all his T20 experience, you would have expected that bowling coach Dimi Mascarenhas would have made a positive difference but there was scant evidence of his influence.
The talent is obviously there in the team and there are plenty of wise heads at Essex both on and off the field. So it has to be hoped that, when preparations start for next year’s Blast, the lessons from 2018 will be learnt and put into practice.
Rumour has it that there is a promising young lad called Alastair Cook who will be available to open the batting next year. He should, in the four day format at least, give the Essex batting a real boost.
Peter Siddle is signed as overseas player for 2018. Together with Harmer and Porter (provided the latter is not called up by England) they should form the heart of a highly effective attack.
One player who won’t be seen at Chelmsford next year is long-serving wicketkeeper James Foster who has said that he is “very disappointed” with the club’s decision not to renew his contract. 38-year-old Foster, who played seven Tests and 11 one-day internationals for England, plans to move into coaching.
Third place in the Championship and quarter final qualification in the Royal London competition represent decent results; but they must be offset against the dismal failure in the Blast.
Overall, not a season to live long in the memory or to set the River Chelmer alight, but not one to be ashamed of either.