Derek Pringle column – Work to be done for Essex to shake off yo-yo tag

The biggest challenge of promotion it seems, for those teams which manage it like my old county Essex, is adapting to their new environment quickly enough to avoid the drop at the end of the summer. To that end, this piece purports to offer Ryan ten Doeschate and his side a survival kit for the first division, a place Essex have never lingered for more than a season since it came into being 16 years ago.

Essex’s first glaring problem is to find the gaping, wickets-shaped hole left by Graham Napier, who retired at the end of the season. Napier took 63 of the 274 wickets the team took to gain promotion, a contribution not easily replaced.

While a couple of county-grown batsmen who left Essex in the past few years have returned to the club, Varun Chopra and Adam Wheater, none of the bowling talent has returned. The options, therefore, are to either sign an overseas bowler of note; give the young talent at the club its head; or attract bowlers from other counties who don’t mind working hard for their wickets – Chelmsford being a pitch for honest toil over dazzling heroics.

The days of choosing an overseas player wisely, in trying to ensure a good fit with both the club’s philosophy and the other players, are long gone. These days, such matters are dictated by price and availability.

It is no secret that Essex are keen to sign Pakistan’s Mohammad Amir, but they would need a season’s commitment from him, something many overseas players are loathe to commit to given the siren calls of T20 leagues around the world. But if Amir could be persuaded to commit for most of the season, he’d be an ideal bowler for first division pitches.

With Jamie Porter and Matt Quinn to complement him, I would be tempted to throw teenager Aaron Beard into the fray.Tall, with excellent pace and control, Beard has potential to be Essex’s new Neil Foster, a bowler who famously announced himself with five wickets against Kent having been given time off by his school to play in the match.

Foster’s early blooding was not without problems, including a stress fracture to his back, something Beard has also suffered. Solutions were varied with one committee man suggesting that he needed to build himself up by dining on Guinness and steak. When Foster retorted that Essex’s evening meal allowance wouldn’t cover the cost, the committee man coughed up the excess.

I’m not sure that combination of meat and stout achieved its original aim (Foster remained skinny), but it made him feel special which, in turn, allowed him to turn in some special performances. Indeed, his pace, something Beard also possesses, was instrumental in Essex winning five County Championships between 1982-93. At 18, Beard needs to be nurtured, but he must not be wrapped in cotton wool.

The need for a good spinner is also a pressing one for Essex. According to most umpires, pitches in the first division are generally superior to those in the second, making variety and, therefore, spin a necessity.

Certainly both Middlesex and Somerset, the top two sides in Division One, owe their success to big performances from their spinner(s) with Ollie Rayner taking 51 wickets for the champions. For Somerset, who decided to play on deliberately scarified pitches at Taunton, Jack Leach, Roelof Van der Merwe and Dominic Bess took 100 wickets between them.

At the moment, Essex use Tom Westley and Dan Lawrence’s off-breaks, but while Westley’s are decent enough, he appears to be a reluctant bowler. A priority then is to not only find a good spinner within county cricket, but to then persuade them to go to Chelmsford where turn is rarely generous. It will not come naturally to a fast-bowling Yorkshireman, but Chris Silverwood, Essex’s coach, will need to be at his most silver-tongued to get someone good.

One option, which Essex have taken up previously, would be to either sign Middlesex’s Ravi Patel or to have him on loan, though Middlesex might be reluctant to allow that now Essex are in the same division.

Patel is a fine slow left-arm spinner who needs the cricket to develop but there are others who offer the same, like James Sykes from Leicestershire, Lancashire left-armer Stephen Parry or Yorkshire’s Karl Carver. Essex have their own left-arm tweaker in Arun Nijjar, but, by general consensus, he is not yet ready for the rough and tumble of county cricket.

Essex’s batting prowess is largely credited for their promotion to the top division, but there remain issues. Chief among them is the now perennial question of when Ravi Bopara might deliver on his undoubted potential.

As Keith Fletcher once said of another Essex player not living up to expectation, “You’ll be up and coming until you are over the hill,” suggesting that he, like Bopara, might never reach the peaks expected of him.

Certainly, his return of 750 runs in Division Two is modest for a man of his supposed talents. If he is ever to reach fruition, next season would be a good time to do so.

Happily, Essex, who have always been keen to promote home-grown talent, have seen two former players, Chopra and Wheater, return to Chelmsford. Both are fine batsmen, though, more importantly, both have made runs in the first division. Their lead and experience will be important as players like Tom Westley, Essex’s leading run-scorer with 1,217 runs last season, make the step up to face bowlers who are a bit classier and give that little bit less away than their second division counterparts.

They will also have Alastair Cook and his insatiable hunger for runs for the first half of the summer, his England duties not starting until after the Champions Trophy.

Finally, Essex will need Ten Doeschate, their captain, to be almost as brilliant with the bat as he was in 2016, when he made 1,157 runs batting at six or seven. It was a incredible feat that clearly inspired others. But if he makes just 900 of those runs next season, Essex will have a chance of staying up which, as we know with the laws of promotion, is most of the battle.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, September 30 2016

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