Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Essex 2010 season review

Gravity had its way in the end. In answer to the question of whether Essex could maintain their heady Division One status for the first time, Paul Grayson's side eventually responded with a fairly emphatic 'no'. The magnetic pull of the second tier has now claimed Essex three times out of three in seasons following successful promotion campaigns.

Ultimately we finished bottom, some 30 points from safety, after losing four of our last five Championship matches - a quite disastrous run that included twin defeats to Warwickshire, who dragged themselves off the foot of the table to finish sixth. In one of those odd little sequences that cricket sometimes throws up, Warks scored 155 in all four innings against Essex, twice to win by seven wickets in the second dig. Swap those results around and it would most likely have been the Bears, rather than the Eagles, who went down.

Having gutsed it through the first half-and-a-bit of the season (with 78 points from nine games), a thumping victory over the eventual champions, Notts, and a creditable draw against Yorks left Essex with 107 points and eyeing survival. Then came that sequence of defeats - four in a row that sealed relegation - and a final-round draw with Durham (where probable victory was eschewed in favour of preparation for the CB40 semi-finals). Five matches, 19 points. It was a miserable way to go.

The most obvious problem, apart from unsuccessful tilts at two one-day trophies (last-four exits came against Hampshire on T20 finals day and Somerset in the aforementioned CB40), was an extra-crumbly batting line-up. From those last seven County Championship fixtures, half of the 14 innings ended with Essex all out for less than 200; their highest total was 399 (so no maximum batting points, then) but 300 was only passed three times.

In the T20 era, seeing out the overs in which batting bonus points are scored (the first 110) seems tough enough for most teams, let alone getting near the 400 required for a maximum of 5 points. While most Division One counties averaged between 2.5 and 3 bonus points from their bowling (Warks, the best in 2010, took 47 from a possible 48; Durham's 39 was the least) only one side regularly took 3 batting points from their matches - Somerset, who play at batsman-friendly Taunton, scored 53 from a maximum of 80. The decline in ability to amass consistently high first-innings totals is worthy of further investigation (it's a project I hope to get round to) but even in a weakened market, Essex were under-powered.

As was the case at around the year's halfway mark, James Foster was the team's standout batsman but his performances dipped slightly after taking on the captaincy from Mark Pettini. Foster's 839 runs at 32, whilst leading the side and keeping wicket, put him level with Jaik Mickleburgh (839 @ 29.96), whose season should be viewed as a success despite a similar tailing off. Matt Walker, who I suggested was key to Essex's survival hopes, ended with 782 at 39, though his one ton came in the dead game against Durham. Tom Westley (440 @ 25.88), who I also had high hopes for, managed a meagre 100 runs from five appearances during the run-in.

Pettini, meanwhile, had his worst season since being handed the captaincy in early 2007, after Ronnie Irani's sudden retirement, totalling just 599 runs at a shade under 25, with two fifties and no hundreds. Injury restricted Ryan ten Doeschate to 11 appearances, meaning the Dutch Saffer could only muster 577 at 34. Billy Godleman (532 @ 26.60) was too inconsistent; Ravi Bopara (550 @ 42.30) and Alastair Cook (474 @ 39.50) too often on international duty to sufficiently bolster Essex's totals.

Mediocre performances and a constantly changing top order fed into one another to further undermine the batting. Only Foster played in every match, with Pettini and Mickleburgh making 15 starts (out of 16); six other batsmen, not including the allrounder Ten Doeschate, made between six and 11 appearances. There were six different opening partnerships used over the course of the season (Goldeman-Maunders, Godleman-Cook, Godleman-Mickleburgh, Westley-Mickleburgh, Mickleburgh-Cook and Pettini-Mickleburgh); and while seven batsmen scored hundreds, only Bopara managed more than one (two, to be precise). Failing to find a settled line-up made for a disjointed and often messy showing.

Essex's bowlers, by contrast, faired pretty well against higher-calibre opponents. Since David Masters arrived to lead the attack three years ago, our bowling unit has improved to the point where it is a real wicket-taking force ... though I guess skittish batting throughout the game, as mentioned above, could also be a factor. What used to be a weakness is now a strength (we certainly held our own in the top division), but it's a shame that the renaissance has coincided with a gradual hollowing out of the side's batting.

Masters was almost an ever-present, and his 53 wickets at 23 from 14 matches represented a career-best season's return. At 32, he's developing into just the sort of knowledgable, canny opening bowler that Essex have needed since Darren Gough ended his three-year stint down south in 2006 - or even since the days of Ashley Cowan and Mark Ilott.

Masters was the only man to meet bowling coach Chris Silverwood's target of 50 Championship wickets, but there were still decent returns for Maurice Chambers (32 @ 25.81) and Chris Wright (31 @ 37.29) - though Wright, like Walker with the bat, achieved his best innings analysis (5-70) in the final game of the season. Chambers in particular is capable of devastating spells these days and his workload has been increasing encouragingly year-on-year. Tony Palladino (18 @ 27.72) chipped in with his usual end-of-season cameo - when will the boy be available for a whole summer?! - while Ten Doeschate's medium pace (27 @ 26.51) was as effective as ever before his injury.

In the spin department, Danish Kaneria was disappointing - though with all the match-fixing rumours swirling around both him personally and the Pakistan team in general, it is understandable that he was affected. Nevertheless, his 23 wickets at nearly 33 runs apiece represented his worst Essex return in six seasons. Tim Phillips (20 @ 37.60) was useful, while Westley (6 @ 29) also turned his arm over on occasion. In a season that featured several middling overseas signings (think Dwayne Bravo's costly T20 finals appearance or Chris Martin's 1-84 after visa trouble delayed his arrival) Bryce McGain was a colourful two-match presence, taking 10 wickets at 26, including an eventful 5-151 from 30-odd overs against Kent.

All of which is to say: things could have gone better. Disappointingly, I failed to make a single day's play on our return to Division One of the Championship, my County Ground attendance record limited to a Pro40 win over Middlesex. Still, the place should look largely the same next season as the development of the stadium is unlikely to start this winter, despite planning permission finally being secured.

So, it's back to the comfy sofa of the second tier. It may be beer stained and poorly upholstered but there's always the possibility of finding a couple of quid down the back. See you there ...

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