Essex defend Petersen signing
Paul Grayson, Essex's head coach, has defended the club's signing of South Africa opener Alviro Petersen for the first two months of the season.
Essex have received criticism in some quarters for allowing Petersen the chance to familiarise himself with conditions ahead of this summer's much-anticipated Test series against England. The series could well decide who is ranked as the No. 1 Test side.
But Grayson, who must cope at the start of the season without Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara (both of whom are on England duty) and Owais Shah (who is a member of the Rajasthan Royals squad in the IPL), has insisted that Essex's record of producing young players is excellent and that it was only fair the club, which is desperate to achieve Championship promotion in 2012, utilised the available overseas talent.
"We give a lot to English cricket," Grayson said. "At the moment we're just thinking about Essex. Alviro was here last year with Glamorgan and had a very successful season. We wanted a top-order batsman and we have been a little bit short of runs in that area over the last couple of years. So we're delighted to get him on board. I've no issue with the England situation. I know they're playing South Africa later in the summer."
Petersen was also bullish about his arrival. The 31-year-old, who could well open the innings with Cook in a few matches, suggested the presence of overseas players in the county game had improved the standard of county cricket and helped develop the England Test side.
"Joining Essex does help with preparations ahead of the Test series against England," Petersen said. "It makes sure I go into that series ready mentally, physically and technically.
"If it wasn't for overseas players in the past, I don't think England would be the team they are today. I think it's important that you get overseas players to come and play here as it helps England cricket in the long run. Playing with guys who have played international cricket is always going to help. It helps the county circuit. It has been that way for years. It helps the standard and the young guys, too."
Essex are not alone in signing one of the South Africa squad ahead of the series. Somerset have brought in the seamer Vernon Philander, while Surrey have signed Jacques Rudolph. Ashwell Prince has also joined Lancashire, though he may not feature in the Test series. All four of them have enjoyed previous spells in English domestic cricket.
"We're very proud," Grayson said of Essex's record of producing players. "Our academy structure is very good under John Childs and Barry Hyam, who do lots of good work, and we try to produce our own players. People say it's a down side when Cook and Bopara go off and play for England, but we want to produce England players. We're really happy with that. There's a nice balance in our squad between youth and experience."
James Foster (England), Graham Napier (uncapped but an England squad member in the past), Tymal Mills (England Lions) and Reece Topley (England U-19s) are among the other leading home-grown players in the Essex squad.
Grayson also explained the decision to sign veteran South African Charl Willoughby. With young fast bowlers Topley and Mills pressing for places, the 37-year-old seamer could seem surplus to requirements but Grayson felt the depth and experience in the bowling attack required strengthening.
"Charl is 37 and has a terrific record in first-class cricket," Grayson said. "We felt we needed another experienced bowler to support Graham Napier and David Masters. Reece Topley is away now with England U-19s for three-and-half-weeks and is away again in mid-summer for the U-19 World Cup. So that leaves us five quick bowlers for the summer. History will tell you at some stage they will pick up an injury, so it's vital we have a conveyor belt of five or six quick bowlers so we can rotate them and keep them fit and fresh.
"We're hoping to make a good start this year. Last year we started the Championship a little slowly, but all our preparations this season have been really good.
"Our number one priority this year is Championship cricket. It always has been since I've been coach. We've been a side that has been promoted and then been relegated and I really want us to become an established Division One side in that format. All our focus has been about four-day cricket."
Edited by Alan Gardner
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo