Another season for Essex, another year in Division Two of the County Championship.
2013 was a decent, yet anti-climatic season at Chelmsford, as Paul Grayson’s side finished third in the four-day format and reached T20 Finals Day before losing to eventual winners Northants.
What could have been a memorable campaign became a frustrating one, with the Eagles missing out on a YB40 semi-final spot despite being second in their group.
Promotion was Grayson’s main objective, but two awful defeats to Northants and Lancashire – the two promoted sides – left a feeling of embarrassment, particularly being bowled out for 20 by the former on a sunny day at the County Ground.
Despite gaining 43 batting points, a better achievement than previous years, Essex’s top-order remains their biggest concern in white clothing. Tom Westley performed pretty well in the four-day game and 40-over competition as an opener, while Jaik Mickleburgh’s 90 against England indicated Grayson and members should expect big things from him.
Owais Shah’s departure leaves a gaping hole at No.3, which is expected to be filled by Nick Browne – another academy product. He struck an unbeaten 86 against Surrey last week in a two-day friendly, where he had to face England 6ft 7in giant Chris Tremlett.
Browne performed consistently in second-team matches last season, and will have a crucial impact on Essex’s fortunes given the hugely important role of No.3.
Ravi Bopara will be available at the beginning, as he is not playing in the IPL and James Foster remains a vital part of the squad due to his near-faultless wicket-keeping, decent batting and captaincy.
Ryan ten Doeschate has replaced Foster as limited-overs skipper, but he will again have a limited role in his county’s promotion challenge as he is representing Kolkata Knight Riders between April and May.
During this period, the seamers have to make the most of cloudy conditions and pitches with a hint of green on. David Masters is still the leader of the attack, although Reece Topley has shown maturity beyond his 20 years by taking 48 wickets at 28 runs apiece in Division Two.
If Graham Napier can repeat his 2013 season then Essex will surely get back to the top division for the first time since 2009. The stocky all-rounder averaged 49.75 with the bat and took 48 Championship wickets in 16 matches.
Napier, who struck an astonishing 152 against Sussex six years ago, had a famous spell of bowling in 2013, taking four wickets in successive deliveries against Surrey in the YB40. His figures of 7-32 were further sweetened by bowling cricket great Ricky Ponting, before he returned for his amazing feat.
Therefore, Essex have a strong side, particularly in limited-overs cricket and should definitely be promotion contenders.
If they fail to make the top two and go trophyless for the sixth season running, then Grayson’s days could be numbered.
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