Thursday, December 29, 2011

Essex's 2011: A Review

In 2010, Essex reached the semi-finals of the 40 over competition (only to lose to the eventual runners up, Somerset), reached the semi-finals of the Twenty20 (only to lose to the eventual champions, Hampshire) but also got relegated from Division One of the County Championship. The promotion to Division One in 2009 was fantastic, but Essex got it after a generous declaration from Derbyshire. 2010 was always going to be a tough season for them and it ended up being so, with Essex only winning two matches (against Hampshire and eventual champions, Nottingamshire). The weather didn't help Essex's cause, so for the season of 2011, it was hoped that the skies would remain clear and that Essex could at least go one better in the limited overs competitions.

Well, that was the hope. In reality, Essex's 2011 season will go down as one of being distinctly average and tinged with disappointment. For most cricket fans, the first class season finished around early to mid September. For Essex fans, it finished in mid August after a damp squib against Derbyshire.

April was a balmy month. In fact, for most of it, it was warmer than the majority of the summer to come. Essex, though, did not get off to a bright start. Their first opponents were Kent and things did not go well. With the Indian Premier League (IPL) occurring in India, Essex had lost Ryan ten Doeschate and Owais Shah. Ravi Bopara decided to turn down the chance to play for Rajasthan to instead concentrate on battling for the place vacated by Paul Collingwood's retirement from Test cricket.

It didn't go well for him. Even though Essex were bolstered by the return of winter run machine, Alastair Cook, Essex were blown away by Darren Stevens after bowling Kent out for a relatively modest 247, after youngster Sam Northeast opened his account for the season with a century. Kent had been 140-7 but, in what turned out to be a foreshadowing for the rest of Essex's season, they struggled to finish off the tail and the last three wickets were able to add over 100 runs. Essex struggled against the Tiflex ball and limped along to 48-6, Bopara getting an incredibly painful 16 ball duck. 
Ravi Bopara actually connecting with the ball in what can only be described as a horrific passage of play.
After a lower order recovery, Essex reached 201 all out, 46 runs behind Kent. A second innings 5 wicket haul from the youngster Reece Topley handed Essex some hope, but they, ultimately, ended up losing by 57 runs as Darren Stevens added three more wickets to his six in the Essex first innings and Robbie Joseph picked up 4.

The start of the season heralded the start of a certain youngster's first class career. Ipswich born (© every paper you'll ever read in Suffolk) Reece Topley, son of former Essex bowler Don and famous for being clattered on the side of the head by Kevin Pietersen, when he was only 15, back in 2009. You might have read his tweets worshipping The Only Way is Essex or his attempts to "banter" with the Essex team. On the pitch, though, Reece started his County Championship debut with (as mentioned above) a second innings 5 wicket haul. A tall, left-arm seam bowler, in the first innings, he took 2 wickets, including ripping Joe Denly's stumps out of the ground. He bowled with pace and (reported) swing and although he did tire towards the end of the day and become more expensive, he bowled well and has certainly got great potential for the county. He's still growing and isn't 18 until February, but freshly dropped out of sixth form, Reece will hopefully be able to gain more valuable experience by playing and training with the Essex first team.

Meanwhile, Essex were still searching for an overseas bowler to help boost the ranks a bit. Peter Siddle was lined up, but then Cricket Australia pulled the plug on the deal. Tim Southee was a possibility, but he decided to go for the IPL instead and joined us for the Twenty20 tournament (more about that later). So that left us with the South African pace bowler of Lonwabo Tsotsobe, and it seemed his brief stay at the club was doomed the moment he decided he was going to come to England. A family bereavement delayed his debut and when he finally got here... Well, let's just say his comments (the generic "I am thrilled to be joining up with [insert county here]")when he arrived at the club didn't really sing true with his performances. He was axed as the youth of Essex showed more desire to be playing for the club and, seemingly, far more capable of putting in decent performances. During the CB40 match against Lancashire, he reportedly stood at fine leg with his hands in his pockets and when a catch looked like it was coming towards him, he continued to have a look of indifference about the state of the game. He was dropped after poor performances in the County Championship and ended up venting his frustration on Twitter.

He left the club with immediate effect and the scathing words of Paul Grayson, "His work rate and attitude hasn't been up to the standard I would expect of someone with his experience as an international cricketer", ringing in his ears.

After the loss to Kent, next up was a trip to Lord's to play (the eventual champions) Middlesex. Here, Steven Finn and Tim Murtagh ripped through the Essex team, leaving them with two heavy losses to begin the season. It wasn't an ideal start considering we'd only have the man of the winter up until the middle of May. He was succumbing to the April conditions and the other potential England guy looked like he couldn't hit a barn door with a banjo, let alone a cricket ball with a bat. With Tendo and Shah still at the IPL until at least the end of April and Napier still recovering from a pretty horrible injury last season, it was up to a road of a pitch at Northants to get Essex to stop the rot.

In what was an unseasonably warm April, Cook made the Northamptonshire bowlers empathise with some of the Australians as he cracked his first century of the season. He was joined on three figures by Jaik Mickleburgh as Essex posted a big total of 433 all out in the first innings, Chaminda Vaas being the pick of the Northants bowlers with 5-76. However, the pitch was the same for the Northants boys and with an undercooked Tsotsobe (he bowled 15 no-balls) and a just turned 17 year old in the attack, Northants were able to go past Essex's first innings total and declare on 538-9 (Stephen Peters with a century, Niall O'Brien and Vaas both getting 96). Essex were in trouble at 82-4, but an unbroken 5th wicket partnership between Pettini and Walker meant that Essex were able to leave Wantage Road with a draw.

Victory finally came for Essex as Jerusalem rang out at Westminster Abbey. Ravi Bopara finally remembered what the middle of the bat looked like and made a century in a potentially tricky run chase that saw Essex claim victory against Glamorgan by 6 wickets. Chasing 400 on a fourth day pitch at Chelmsford was never going to be easy, especially going by some of the batting of the three previous games, but Bopara (136*) and Matt Walker (97) combined to put on a partnership of 217 and put Essex well on course for their first victory of the season.

May saw the start of the CB40 campaign. After a much needed, morale boosting victory, Essex were hoping to put the previous season's disappointment behind them. Group C was a strong group with Somerset, Lancashire, Notts, Glamorgan, Gloucestershire and the Unicorns joining Essex to make up the 7. The bridesmaids of Somerset were probably the favourites to top the group, but if Essex were on form, they could provide a stiff challenge for, at least, second place and try and be the best placed runners up.

It started well for Essex, with back-to-back CB40 wins against Nottinghamshire and Lancashire at Chelmsford. Then came the trip down to Wales and what was to become Essex's downfall of the campaign: the weather. Essex only lost 3 matches, one less than second placed Nottinghamshire and one more than winners Somerset, but the 3 no results meant that Essex were only able to pick up 1 point rather than two, which they may well have been able to do at Cardiff (a Graham Napier hat-trick certainly helped down there), at Trent Bridge (where Notts scored 127-7 off their already reduced amount of overs) and also against Glamorgan at Chelmsford (chasing 133 off 15 overs, Essex were 53-2 off 6.2 overs when the rain came). Of course, Essex could've royally messed it up and would've quite happily taken 1 point over 0 any day of the week, but it's just a shame that any finish was denied by our old friend the British summer. Bless you, you horribly magnificent beast.

Still, having said this about the weather, it was the south west which also proved our downfall. A very disappointing loss to Gloucestershire at the end of July didn't help the cause and two losses to Somerset also meant that the CB40 campaign ended in disappointment for the Eagles. I was at both the Southend fixture versus Somerset and the Taunton fixture on the Bank Holiday Monday in August (battling National Express East Anglia on a Bank Holiday on very little sleep is always going to be fun) and both times Essex were undone by the Somerset bowling and blown away by a decent batting line up. For the Taunton fixture, Essex had a fairly young and inexperienced bowling attack (with Masters being rested and Mills, Topley and Craddock joining Napier, Phillips and ten Doeschate as the main bowlers) and ended up being whacked about by Peter Trego, James Hildreth and Chris Jones. I think my day down in Taunton can probably be summed up by the lovely old gent who said, "Oh, I'm so sorry" after I informed him I was an Essex fan when he gave me a victorious smile...

I guess you could say that this picture is a visual metaphor for Essex's season.
Despite Essex not reaching it, I did end up at the CB40 final at Lord's. That's all I'm really going to say on the soggy mess of a match. 

Speaking of Surrey, there was also some County Championship action in May, and it's here I've got to get a mention of Napier in again. Having been out for pretty much all of last season with a career threatening back injury, he returned to the Essex 4 day fold and in some style, by smacking the Surrey attack (including Chris Tremlett) out of the Croydon park for 6, sixteen times. It equalled Andrew Symonds' feat from 1995 (and it was something Jesse Ryder did last month for New Zealand in a warm up match before the Australia series) and the second time Napier himself has done it (v Sussex in the Twenty20 in 2008). The match ultimately ended up in a draw, as did the Derbyshire match which preceded it, thanks to the weather and kind umpiring...

And so we move into June, where the Twenty20 tournament took up most of the fixture list. Tucked away amongst those fixtures was a tour match against the visiting Sri Lankans. A team containing Sangakkara, Paranavitana and Prasanna Jayawardene were pitted against a side with an average age of 23. This match marked the first class debut of (then) 18 year old Tymal Mills, 18 year old wicket keeper Ben Foakes and the (then) 21 year old Tom Craddock, on trial at the club having been impressive for the Unicorns. I was stuck up in Lancaster revising, but a mammoth partnership between Westley and ten Doeschate meant that even with a hat-trick for Randiv, Essex were able to have a slender lead over Sri Lanka's first innings total of 337, with centuries for Thirimanne and Sangakkara being a huge part of that total. Rain saved Sri Lanka from a potential defeat (Reece Topley and Maurice Chambers having reduced them to 38-3 at lunch), but for Essex, it provided an incredibly encouraging signs that they have some promising youngsters amongst their ranks.

One of those promising youngsters is Tymal Mills, a guy from the Suffolk/Norfolk border who has ended up causing quite a stir amongst the county cricket community. After only six matches for Essex across the 2011 season, Mills has spent his winter with the England Performance Programme squad. He had originally been in the development squad (along with young wicketkeeper-batsman Adam Wheater), but an injury to Ajmal Shahzad meant that he was called up to the full EPP squad. Over the 2011 summer, Mills played for Mildenhall in the top division of the Marshall Hatchick Two Counties league of Suffolk and Essex. In fact, the day before only his 5th match for Essex, I was watching him play against my club in the finals day of the county's Twenty20 tournament. He had to miss the final (if you care, Mildenhall won) due to being named in the squad for the match against Somerset and I ended up watching him play for Essex the next day. I watched a couple of days of the Surrey match, in which he was controlled in Surrey's first innings and more expensive in the second, but he's promising and his rise has the potential to be a wonderful thing for cricket in Suffolk. Having decided to take a year out from his studies, Mills can only hope that 2012 is even more successful and exciting year for him.

Enough banging on the home county pride drum, back to Essex's season. Due to my exam timetable and an impromptu holiday in early July, I could only make one Twenty20 fixture and it was the one against Middlesex on 2nd July. But I made use of the wonderful BBC radio service and was able to listen to what was, ultimately, another massive disappointment of a tournament for the Eagles. Scott Styris returned to the Essex fold and brought Tim Southee with him. Limited overs cricket is seen as one of Essex's stronger points, and the team looked good on paper. On the pitch, however, things did not click and Essex failed to reach the quarter finals after a bad-tempered match against rivals Kent. One of those "catches which are probably out but because the TV footage makes it look like the ball has hit the ground, it's not" incidents occurred (Scott Styris is probably still seething) and Darren Stevens took full advantage of his reprieve and some very poor Essex bowling to hit 41 not out. Denly, Key and Azhar Mahmood also took advantage as Kent posted 183-6. A combination of that and the bowling of Darren Stevens extinguished the slim chance that Essex had of reaching the quarter finals.

It was a mixed bag of tournament for Essex, with some decent performances thrown in with some horror shows. It was also one marked by poor behaviour, when he wasn't chasing pigeons, captain James Foster got banned for two matches for dissent after finding himself incredibly unhappy (read: irate) with his dismissal in the first match against Surrey. He subsequently missed the matches against Hampshire and Glamorgan in mid July. The performances on the pitched ranged between being thrashed after a Marcus Trescothick masterclass to managing to defend what was probably a below par 139 against Middlesex (luckily for us, they were having a dreadful tournament). There were some great individual displays, like Tim Southee's 6-16 against Glamorgan and some of his various cameos coming in at number 3 (he opened the batting against Hampshire and ended up with 74 off 34 balls). There was also Ravi Bopara's desperate attempt to regain form which somehow ended up with him in the England squad for the Sri Lanka series.

Action from said match against Middlesex. Owais Shah celebrates picking up the wicket of Scott Newman. I'm just putting it here to brighten up the post.
The rest of Essex's four day campaign was ultimately nothing to write home about. There were some superb results tucked away in there, like a big victory against Northamptonshire, who had had a very good start to the season, but were bowled out for 99 at Chelmsford. There was a 440 minute knock of 178 from stand-in captain Ravi Bopara, on what was a tricky pitch at Garon's Park and later on in the same match, David Masters picking up 8-10 as Leicestershire were blown away for 34 all out in a County Championship season to forget for them. This was followed by an exciting draw against Glamorgan at Cardiff. With Essex precariously placed at 62-3 at tea and reduced to 104-6 in the 33rd over, Napier (with an uncharacteristic strike rate of 22) and Phillips were able to see out the remaining 20 overs and secure a draw.

Really, the four day campaign can really be summed up as batting collapses, a failure to finish off the tail, David Masters getting 91 wickets and exciting young prospects coming through. There was a slender chance against Gloucestershire to take victory after a rebuilding effort between Wheater, ten Doeschate and Napier had put Essex in a strong position, but an unbeaten century and half century from Chris Taylor and Will Gidman respectively meant that Gloucestershire were able to see out the remainder of the day and snuff out Essex's slim hopes of being a part of the promotion battle. The final nail in the coffin came mid August during the damp squib against Derbyshire and back to back losses against Kent and Surrey meant that the season was ended in a nice book-ended fashion.

So, what have Essex got to looked forward to in 2012 at the moment?

With contracts given to the youngsters of Topley, Mills, Foakes and Craddock, contract extensions to numerous players, managing to keep hold of James Foster, Napier being handed a benefit year and the signings of Greg Smith from Derbyshire and Charl Willoughby from Somerset, Essex will be hoping that 2012 is one of progress. The youngsters have got their debuts under their belts and players with experience to assist them in their development. Cook was one of the players who signed a contract extension, his being an additional two years and signed back in July. But with him now being captain of the England ODI side and having an incredibly successful 2011, it's unlikely Essex will see as much of him next season as they have done in previous years.

Matt Walker, Essex's new batting coach with the loss of Graham Gooch (definitely not Tom Westley) to England, has stated that Essex need to focus on their batting after it has "flattered to deceive the last two or three seasons". Rumours of an overseas batsman to fill in for those away on international or IPL duty have included Phil Hughes, Jacques Rudolph and Alviro Petersen, but Phil Hughes is now a Pear for (some of) the season, and nothing has come of the Rudolph/Petersen rumours for now. Hashim Amla, who had a successful spell here in 2009 is definitely out as he has decided to stay in South Africa. His wife is due to give birth to their first child in February, so it's completely understandable that he wishes to spend as much time as possible with his family, so all the best to them. I think it goes without saying that it's hoped that anyone who does sign has a better time of it and a far better attitude than Tsotsobe...

Reading the Essex website, it appears Essex players are spread across the globe preparing for the new season. A few, like Wheater, ten Doeschate and Pettini, have/will be in Zimbabwe, whilst player of the year David Masters isn't playing cricket at all and is instead working for his dad. Unfortunately for Graham Napier he picked up a nasty elbow injury whilst playing for Central Districts in the HRV Cup in New Zealand, so his winter preparation has turned into rehabilitation.

With the 2012 fixtures now out, studied and highlighted more than Adam Bede, I'll be back down at Chelmsford in the members area in April and ending up at random grounds across the country throughout next summer. 2011 may not have been a successful one for Essex, but I've still enjoyed myself and have spent my time with some lovely people, managed to get a terrified Steven Finn to pose with a duck wrapped in a drinks holder and got to watch some young, exciting and more importantly, Suffolk raised, talent get on the county stage.