Essex: Prichard stays positive over end of empire (23 Aug 1998)

23 August 1998

Prichard stays positive over end of empire

By Paul Newman

WHEN Graham Gooch ended the most successful career in English cricket, Essex were riding high in the championship and seemingly set to continue a golden age that had seen them secure six first-class titles in 13 years. Now, just 13 months on, they have won only three more four-day games and are rooted at the bottom of the table that counts.

True, since the colossus turned his attention to selecting England teams rather than carrying the nation's batting, Essex have won two cups and top the AXA League with just four matches remaining.

But two crushing championship defeats by an innings within a week - the second, more emphatic coming on Friday at their once impregnable Colchester fortress - have heightened the first-class decline of the most prominent domestic force of the last 20 years. It will need a Herculean effort to stop Essex from claiming only their second wooden spoon.

It is too simplistic to blame solely the departure of Gooch for a situation which is likely to see their young team 'emulate' Doug Insole's 1950 bottom-placers, and it is fair to say that the mitigating circumstances, headed by a debilitating injury list, are many.

Then, also, there was captain Paul Prichard's pre-season pledge to give youth its head while promising a one-day trophy or two to satisfy the short-term demands of a success-spoiled membership - a pretty accurate prognosis. It is just that he did not quite expect to see his side slip so far so quickly.

"Any club would like to win two trophies in a year and we very much hope to do that," said Prichard ahead of today's league match at Colchester against Gloucestershire, when both he and Stuart Law will return from injury. "But, to be honest, it would be tarnished if we finish bottom. It's not where we want to be and I can understand why some of our members have complained. They are entitled to be angry but I can assure them it's not through any lack of effort or passion on the part of the players." For Prichard, the longest-serving county captain in the country, the agony has been enhanced by his inability to do much about the fall throughout the season. A serious shin injury ruled him out at the outset and, after six weeks of "playing in pain" on his return, he was forced on to the sidelines again, just hobbling back into action on Sundays along with Ashley Cowan, another long-term injury victim. All in all, it makes Prichard's Gold Award-winning 92 in the Benson and Hedges Cup final against Leicestershire, compiled throughout with a smile on his face, all the more commendable.

"Pain-killers got me through," he said, "but now it is properly rested and I hope to play for the rest of the season. It's been difficult. I had to decide when I was first injured whether to come to the ground every day and be a vocal presence or keep my distance and let the lads make their own decisions. I took the latter option and I'm sure everybody will be stronger for the experience. You have to believe in youth and I like the look of our future, but that doesn't make the present any easier.

"The trouble has been that our youngsters have gained opportunities in circumstances that I didn't want, but on the whole they have shown that they are able to play the game at this level."

To that end, Stephen Peters, Ian Flanagan, Graham Napier, Tim Hodgson and Jamie Grove will all be given enhanced responsibilty again next year alongside the likes of Ronnie Irani (averaging 92 with the bat and 18 with the ball on Sundays) and Mark Ilott, who have carried a huge burden.

Consequently, Prichard insists there will be no panic-induced plunges into the 'transfer market' during the winter, even though Essex left themselves short of bowling cover by last week releasing Neil Williams, Darren Cousins and Danny Wilson. "If someone we fancy becomes available we'll go for him and there are one or two areas we must look at, but we're not going to grab just anybody," said Prichard.

Source :: Electronic Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk)