Whether Essex’s 2018 is a season that will go down as a success is not a question that can really be answered easily.
On the one hand, they surrendered their County Championship title to rivals Surrey and failed to get anywhere near glory in the T20 Blast.
But with a none-too-shabby party-pooping third place in the four-day game and a decent run in the Royal London One-Day Cup, the year won’t exactly fall into the category of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s Show’.
After all, it was their dramatic one-wicket victory at The Oval in the final round that stopped Surrey from claiming an unbeaten season – and with relegation concerns never really a thing, it’s a season that certainly offers the platform and appetite for more.
💯 Cook x Wheater 🤜🤛 pic.twitter.com/ix7CBm9yae— Essex Cricket (@EssexCricket) 26 March 2019
Enter 2019. Change is a word hushed in whispered tones in Chelmsford and there’s little surprise that they enter this year with few outs, even fewer ins and a ‘let’s go again’ attitude.
The retirement of James Foster presents him as a notable absentee, while Ashar Zaidi, Callum Taylor and Matt Dixon move on to pastures new in the only releases from the club.
Australian pair Peter Siddle and Adam Zampa – the latter for T20 duty – remain the overseas options while Mohammad Amir will also return, thundering in for the game’s shortest format.
Jack Plom, penning a professional deal after impressing in the youth set-up, and Cameron Delport come in from elsewhere.
But when it comes to new faces pulling into the Chelmsford car par, look no further than Sir Alastair Cook.
🗣️ “The fixture at Cambridge is the last opportunity for players to impress before the season starts at Hampshire.”— Essex Cricket (@EssexCricket) 25 March 2019
Anthony McGrath speaks to Essex Cricket TV about the recent trip to Abu Dhabi and the upcoming fixture with Cambridge MCCU ➡️ https://t.co/v9laoKTWyW pic.twitter.com/VODpTZoL4T
Many Essex fans would struggle to remember the last time their favourite son played a full season on the shires but that’s what they get this year after his retirement from the international game.
A century in his last Test shows England’s most prolific run-scorer of all time is far from past it either, though his reintroduction to the Essex red will bring with it the feel of a new player. The player that could take his home county to glory in either the Championship or One-Day Cup.
Cook and Foster aside, it’s all the same again for Essex. Ravi Bopara and Ryan ten Doeschate do what they do time and time again, Dan Lawrence, Tom Westley and Nick Browne will all be in and out of England’s plan with each 50 or duck that comes their way and Simon Harmer will keep spinning balls from nowhere.
Throw in Jamie Porter and Sam Cook – both so impressive in 2018 – and you get all the makings of another team set to challenge.
Ins: Jack Plom (youth), Cameron Delport (Leicestershire)
Outs: James Foster (retired), Ashar Zaidi, Callum Taylor, Matt Dixon (all retired)
He is the obvious choice but, with only four men in Test cricket scoring more runs than Alastair Cook, he is the top pick for a reason.
Essex have usually been limited to one or two games a season for their opener since his debut in 2006 but with Cook back and motivated, don’t bet against him continuing the run fest.
Beyond that, he is set to add a wealth of experience and battle for places in what is already a congested top order. Ravi Bopara and Ryan ten Doeschate will likely be regulars when fit but the likes of Nick Browne, Tom Westley, Dan Lawrence and Varun Chopra will also feel they deserve the nod in the first XI.
Something has to give but with Cook on hand to give the likes of Lawrence invaluable experience, his impact may not be limited to just on-field performances.
Player to watch
From one chef to another, Sam Cook will be looking to boil up a storm with ball in hand.
As part of Essex’s County Championship winning side in 2017, Cook simply ripped it up in the final four games of the season – 20 wickets a far from shabby haul.
Last season may have started in disrupted fashion but 27 wickets at 25 in his ten matches offers a lot of promise for the year to come.
One full year with ball in hand alongside the likes of Jamie Porter and Matt Quinn could really see him come into his own.
Peter Siddle is no stranger to Essex fans and the partisan Chelmsford faithful will surely be delighted to see him back for 2019 and 2020.
His heart-on-his-sleeve approach is something that’s always seen him in good stead – despite beating England with Australia – and is far from over the hill just yet.
At 33, Siddle has experience aplenty with 211 wickets in 62 Tests though is unlikely to feature again in his Baggy Green.
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Another amazing stint in the UK with the @essex_cricket family. Time now to get home to my family and the Aussie summer. 🏏 The exciting news before heading home is that I’ve signed on to come back for the next 2 seasons. Can’t wait to get back next year, see you all very soon! #Essex #Eagles #CountyCricket 🙌🏻💙🦅
The same can’t be said for compatriot Adam Zampa, with the spin king set to rejoin the county around his international commitments.
Zampa, who took the most T20 wickets for Essex last season with 12, will also be able to play in the knockout stages of the competition should they progress.
But they’ll need a vast improvement in performances to do so, having won just two of their 14 games last season.
How they’ll fare
Whether Essex have the all-around strength and depth in their squad to mount another full title challenge is yet to be seen.
But with the talent they possess and the vast experience mounting in the team, a top-four finish in the four-day game should certainly be a real aim.
As for the limited overs formats, 2018 was not a vintage year in their Blast history but expect that to change significantly this year, though Finals Day will likely remain still out of reach.
Instead their best chance of a white-ball trophy could come in the One-Day Cup, with a plethora of players suited to the longer white-ball format, as they’ve shown in recent years.
Season Odds (Sky Bet)
SSCC Division One: 7/2
Royal London One-Day Cup: 11/1
Vitality Twenty20 Blast: 16/1