By recent standards, 2023 was undoubtedly a significant improvement on 2022 in two out of the three competitions. In simple terms, the Championship brought a 2nd place finish to perennial champions Surrey and losing to Somerset by 14 runs in the final of the T20 Blast; with the only blot on the record a 9th placed finish in the group stages of the Metro Bank One-Day Cup. So, while this brought grounds for optimism, the winds of change blew strong in Chelmsford which brings some uncertainty to counteract the optimism as an ageing side will need to start the process of evolving.
While the batters struggled for consistent runs in 2022, 2023 brought an improved batting effort with the likes of Tom Westley, Dan Lawrence, and Matt Critchley having solid seasons. Westley finished as the 2nd highest run scorer in Division One with 1,130 runs, but no one else passed the magical 1,000 mark, with Critchley falling just short with 990 (come on, surely, they can move some leg byes around to get him another 10?). Sir Alistair Cook had a disappointing season by his standards with only 836 runs, which can in part be explained by some spicy early tracks suiting the new ball. Unsurprisingly, he decided to hang up his bat as he retired at the end of the season. With Dan Lawrence also moving on, there are some sizeable holes in the batting unit to be filled in time for the 2024 season.
The batting was underpinned by a high performing bowling attack, with Jamie Porter returning to full fitness with a healthy haul of 57 wickets, along with the ever-consistent Sam Cook chipping in another 48 to bring Good Times and leave many an opposition batter in a Sad Mood. The erstwhile Simon Harmer did his usual and topped the wicket charts with 61. Outside these three, there was a stark drop in quality as only Doug Bracewell and Matt Critchley snuck into double figures. This will be something that will need to be addressed if they are to take the next step to silverware.
The white ball teams will also face similar issues, while they are an extremely competitive T20 unit with some talented quick-scoring batters like Michael Pepper, Feroze Khushi, and Robin Das in their ranks, the absence of Lawrence may be more keenly felt here together with his useful off spin in this format. Paul Walter has had an excellent Big Bash campaign for the Brisbane Heat, and he may well become the fulcrum of the T20 side for years to come.
The 50 over team will need some significant strengthening, but the youngsters who formed the spine of the team like Jamal Richards, Charlie Allison and Noah Thain (Allisson and Thain have just signed new contracts) will be all the better for the experience, and the Essex fans will be keen to see the next generation of the famed youth setup graduate into more regular first XI cricket.
Off the field, the report arising from Katharine Newton KC’s independent inquiry into historic racism at the club still looms large as the club try to move forward and implement the necessary cultural changes, many of which are bearing fruit in terms of their community work in areas such as East London. Additionally, the club are looking at renovations of their home at Chelmsford, such as minor improvements to the corporate hospitality offerings and some infrastructure improvements to help modernise the ground and enable them to improve the finances by becoming a facility that can generate revenue outside the cricket season.
Middlesex are even using Chelmsford as their home base for two T20 Blast fixtures which may also be a useful financial boost to Essex. The club has consistently punched above its weight on the field, so this year could be a period of transition in various respects.
My predictions for 2024?
I expect Essex to remain competitive in the County Championship once again, while being an outside contender for the T20 Blast. The One-Day Cup may be a struggle once again unless the club can add some experience to help the youngsters.
In: Simon Harmer (South Africa), Dean Elgar (South Africa), Daniel Sams (Australia, for first eight T20 games), Jordan Cox (Kent)
Out: Dan Lawrence (Surrey), Alastair Cook (retired), Aron Nijjar, Josh Rymell, Eshun Kalley, Will Buttleman (all released)
The financial pressures at the club are well known, and this can be seen in the close season recruitment activity, with several players leaving the club alongside the retirement of Sir Alistair Cook. With Cook and Lawrence off the books, this should significantly ease the financial pressure as these were two of the bigger earners at the club. Others leaving at the end of their contracts included back-up keeper Will Buttleman, and other 2nd XI players such as seamer Eshun Kalley, batter Josh Rymell, and spinner Aron Nijjar.
While there will probably never be another modern-day cricketer like Cook, they have brought in the next best thing in recently retired South African opener Dean Elgar, so gritty left-handed top order runs will be still on the menu at Chelmsford in 2024 at least. The overseas contingent is completed by the legendary Simon Harmer (no further comment needed on him), and the explosive Australian all-rounder Daniel Sams, who had an outstanding T20 Blast campaign in 2023.
England batter Dan Lawrence has also moved onto pastures new to join Surrey on a three-year deal. He has been replaced by keeper-batter Jordan Cox who crosses the Thames to join from Kent, in the only domestic transfer business completed by the club.
It will be hard to look past the South African contingent of Simon Harmer who has legend status in Chelmsford, and Dean Elgar who will be needed to provide top order stability in Cook’s absence. In the white ball arena Daniel Sams experience will be vital, but Sam Cook is a vital cog for the club in all formats as well and he will be crucial.
One to Watch
With places in the batting line up coming up for grabs in what is an experienced squad, there are places up for grabs. Feroze Khushi looks best placed to make a first XI spot his own in all formats and showed signs in the red ball format of graduating into a fully-fledged first XI player. But keep an eye out for Noah Thain and Charlie Allisson who impressed in the Metro Bank One-Day Cup, and both have had a good Under 19 World Cup performances during the winter.