2019 champions Essex take on Kent at Chelmsford in the opening round of Division One of the County Championship this week. Against a backdrop of noise around the county game this week created by the Hundred draft and England’s woes over the winter, supporters will be relishing a return to the status quo of the 4-day red-ball game.
Last season represented a relative failure for an Essex side who have cemented themselves as one of the most successful First-Class sides in the country over the last few years. Failure to qualify from Group 1 of last year’s multi-division format was a major disappointment for a squad blessed with the likes of Sir Alistair Cook and Simon Harmer and they will be hoping to compete at the top end of the table this campaign. Kent fared little better in 2021, finishing 5th in Group 3, but a run of 4 straight wins at the end of the season saw them crowned champions of Division 3.
There is a Ryan Ten Doeschate-shaped hole in the Essex lineup this year. The Dutchman finally decided to call time on his Chelmsford career at the end of last season after 18 years of service to the county, and has incidentally now joined this week’s opponents as their new batting coach. Tom Westley will lead the side in 2022 and will be hoping for a return to the kind of form that earned him 5 England Test caps in 2017. Despite last year’s disappointment, Kent will be optimistic after finishing 4th in 2019 and runners-up of the South Group of the Bob Willis Trophy in 2020 (a group wonby eventual winners Essex), and will hope that the likes of Daniel Bell-Drummond, Jack Leaning and Zak Crawley will prosper under the tutelage of Ten Doeschate.
The combination of a season-opener and the fact these sides have only met once in red-ball cricket over the last two years makes this fixture particularly difficult to predict. The loss of Simon Harmer to international duty is a blow to Essex although their impressive seam attack should mitigate this to a reasonable degree. They will fancy themselves as favourites but expect Kent to spring a surprise or two this season.
Born and raised in Chelmsford, Sam Cook has enjoyed an excellent start to his Essex career and will be the man Westley looks to to lead the attack this season. His 58 wickets at 14.43 last year were rewarded with a spot on the England Lions tour of Australia over the winter and another strong showing this campaign will certainly have him knocking on the selectors’ doors. At just 24 years of age, the future looks very bright for the right-arm seamer.
Who else could it be? Darren Stevens has secured something akin to icon status in recent years as he continues to ply his trade on the domestic circuit. Like a fine wine Stevens continues to improve with age and his mix of right-arm seam and deadly middle-order hitting will once again have batsmen and bowlers around the country scrambling for answers. Stevens will turn 46 at the end of April and is about to begin his 18th season with Kent – you’d be brave to bet on it being his last.
After several years in exile, Harmer finally earned a recall to the South Africa test side for their recent series at home to Bangladesh. He will miss at least the first two rounds of the county season as a result, meaning there will be opportunities for new signing Matt Critchley or Aaron Nijjar to showcase their ability in the spin division. Dan Lawrence should be available after England’s tour of the Caribbean while there could be a debut for Adam Rossington, recently signed on a season-long loan from Northamptonshire.
Kent will be without captain Sam Billings for the first phase of the season while he is on IPL duty with the Kolkata Knight Riders with vice-captain Bell-Drummond leading in his absence. Crawley has been made available by the ECB and will be hoping for some early season runs ahead of the test summer with England. Overseas signing Jackson Bird is expected to make his debut, and there are high hopes the experienced Australian fast-bowler can provide the necessary bite to the seam attack.
Essex Squad: Tom Westley (c), Ben Allison, Nick Browne, Sam Cook, Sir Alistair Cook, Matthew Critchley, Aaron Nijjar, Michael Pepper, Jamie Porter, Adam Rossington, Josh Rymell, Shane Snater, Paul Walter, Adam Wheater (wk)
Kent Squad: Daniel Bell-Drummond (c), Jackson Bird, Ben Compton, Jordan Cox, Zak Crawley, Joe Denly, Nathan Gilchrist, Jack Leaning, Matt Milnes, Ollie Robinson, Matt Quinn, Darren Stevens, Grant Stewart
Weather and conditions
Apart from some strong winds on the opening day, conditions are set relatively fair as far as April curtain-raisers are concerned. Bowlers from both sides will be looking to exploit the breezy conditions and likely seam-friendly nature of the pitch early on, but as conditions improve there should be run-scoring opportunities for the batsmen. With Harmer unavailable and given the time of year, it is unlikely many wickets will fall to spin.
Date: 7th – 10th April 2022
Ground: The Cloud County Ground, Chelmsford
Odds (SkyBet): Essex 8/15, Kent 11/8