Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Essex's Division One odyssey

So, after nine games, more than half of the season gone, how are the Eagles faring against the big boys? A seven-year absence from county cricket's top tier always meant Essex would face a challenge to adapt to what is undoubtedly a stronger division (the gap is more pronounced now than it was the last time we bobbed up) but a competitive and sometimes chaotic campaign so far means hopes of survival will linger beyond the mid-summer Twenty20 break.

After a thrilling last-over victory against Hampshire, the reigning champions Durham were lucky to escape with a rain-influenced draw ... Then came crushing defeats to Lancashire and Yorkshire, sandwiching an enervating draw on the Taunton road. Since then, draws have ruled the results column, with the weather intervening twice to Essex's detriment (when well-placed against Notts and almost certainly denying victory against Lancs) and once in their favour, in this week's shaky draw against Hants.

There have been solid contributions throughout the squad but, as yet, no one has produced the stellar performances that will be required to fight off relegation. Even Ryan ten Doeschate, currently leading the PCA's Most Valuable Player rankings, has still to score a Championship century and he seemed to struggle to at the Rose Bowl (six and nought with the bat and bowling figures of 1-96) - though he has admitted to fatigue being a factor for the team after playing more games than anyone else in the division so far.

David Masters (29 @ 26) continues to lead the attack with aplomb (he's now taken more than 100 wickets at around 25 in less than three seasons at Essex) but Chris Wright has managed just 18 @ 44 despite being the second most-used bowler. Maurice Chambers (19 @ 26) looks to be fit again and, on the back of a five-wicket haul against Hampshire, could be an important figure in the second half of the season. Ten Doeschate (25 @ 27), whose burst in the first game sealed the Eagles' only victory so far, and Ravi Bopara will also have to keep chipping in, as Danish Kaneria's impact is likely to be limited by Pakistan commitments over the summer.

With the bat, James Foster is the leading run-scorer (518 @ 39), while 20-year-old Jaik Mickleburgh is currently averaging nearly 35, with one big hundred, against Durham, to his name. Captain Mark Pettini (379 @ 31) passed fifty for the first time in his 13th innings (though again missed out on a hundred after falling for 96) against Nottinghamshire, while Billy Godleman (350 @ 29) seems to have lost his place after a promising start.

Much may depend on the form and fitness of Matt Walker (331 @ 55) and the continued development of Tom Westley (337 @ 48). Both have only managed four games out of nine, with Walker troubled by a calf problem, but I reckon their contributions could be crucial to the Essex top order. Westley's new-look opening partnership with Mickleburgh is one of youth and promise (at 21, Westley averages 33.66 with two Championship hundreds), while the experience of the 36-year-old Walker will further stiffen the batting. Here's hoping that Bopara, with an eye on an England spot for the Ashes, proves his class in Division One too.

Essex are, of course, the imposters at the party. In the 10 completed seasons since the creation of the two-tier system, Essex have spent two in the top half, ending up relegated both times. Their eight opponents this year (Notts, Yorkshire, Lancs, Somerset, Kent, Durham, Hants, Warks) have all spent at least five years in Division One. At this altitude, the Eagles aren't yet fully fledged birds of prey.

That said, the division looks as if it will be tightly contested from top to bottom, perhaps as a result of all the counties looking to fit a larger slice of T20 pie on their plates. Durham, champions for the last two years, have managed just two wins from seven, while their successors (assuming there is no north-east revival) look likely to come from the pack of four at the top: Notts, Yorks, Somerset or Lancs. Essex will need to outlast two from Hants, Warks and Kent in order to beat the drop.

Between now and August, Essex will play only two Championship games - against the pace-setting Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. That means the last six weeks of the season, which include a double-header against Warwickshire, will be crucial in determining whether Essex can cling on to top-flight status for the first time. Give it three months and we'll know whether the Eagles are still soaring ...

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