Injuries, call-ups will test Essex depth
Last year3rd, CC Div 2; Lost in semi-final, FLt20; 2nd in Group B, YB40.
2013 in a nutshellAlmost but not quite. Essex went close to promotion, made it to T20 finals day and were just a point away from qualifying for the YB40 semi-finals, but fell just short in all three formats. Only Lancashire won more games in the lower division in the Championship and, had Essex won any of their last three, they might have tipped Northants for promotion. They were dogged by inconsistency, though, in all formats. That they made progress was encouraging, but it was not enough to completely shake-off the tag of perennial under-achievers who should, with their talent pool, be challenging more often.
There were some notable low points: being bowled out for 20, the lowest score in their history, on a good batting wicket by Lancashire in June was particularly memorable, but the coach, Paul Grayson, was also moved to offer an apology for the "shambolic" and "totally unacceptable" level of performance during the innings defeat against Northants in April.
There were stand-out performers: Graham Napier excelled with bat and ball in all formats, while Jaik Mickleburgh grew into the role of opening batsman and recorded a career-best 243 in the victory over Leicestershire. David Masters remained reliable with the ball and Reece Topley, 15 years Masters' junior, suggested he was a tailor-made replacement.
2014 prospectsAt full strength, Essex look strong in all formats. The addition of Monty Panesar provides the spin bowling resource they have so often lacked in recent times, while the limited-overs batting, in particular, looks powerful. The problems arrive if they are afflicted by injuries or when England call-ups occur. Essex have lost several players in the last few seasons - the likes of Adam Wheater, Maurice Chambers, Varun Chopra and Chris Wright - who would have been coming into their prime now and there may well be times in 2014 when they miss them. Owais Shah has also departed, while Ryan ten Doeschate and Ravi Bopara will be absent with other commitments at times during the season. Without them, there is a thinner look to the squad that could make a long season, with challenges in all three competitions, hugely testing. There seems to be a good chance an overseas batsmen will be recruited a few weeks into the season, but it may just prove that Essex have already missed their best chance of success over the last few years.
Key playerPanesar's signing is a risk. Aged 31, there is no obvious reason why he should not rediscover the bowling form that made him such a successful international bowler only 18 months ago. If he does, Essex will have found themselves a gem who will bowl many overs, retain control in the field and should remain dangerous on pitches offering assistance. But if Panesar has not conquered the demons that marred his stay with Sussex, Essex will have a high-maintenance, unpredictable character who will require a great deal of management in their dressing room. There is also the danger that, if he does rediscover his best form, England will recall him. His signing might limit opportunities for 24-year-old leg-spinner Tom Craddock, too.
Bright young thingBlessed with a powerful physique, unusual pace and a skiddy left-arm action, 21-year-old Tymal Mills has many of the raw attributes required to go on and flourish at the highest level. Called into the Ashes party as a net bowler - as close as like-for-like to Mitchell Johnson as England could muster - he surprised several well-established players with his pace and led at least one to suggest he should be in the Test team. Yet Mills claimed only six first-class wickets in the season and, for all the talk of his potential, has to gain greater consistency if he is to flourish as an international cricketer. But while many think 20-year-old Topley may be the one with the brighter future, Mills is one of the more exciting prospects in the English game at present and will remain of great interest to the national selectors.
Captain/coachThere were times in 2013 when it seemed Paul Grayson was under pressure to retain his position as director of cricket with Essex. But the club values stability and loyalty and stuck by Grayson. There were some changes in the off-season, though: ten Doeschate has been appointed as captain of the limited-overs teams with James Foster retaining the job in the Championship. All three will be under a bit of pressure to go a step further than the team managed in 2013.
ESPNcricinfo verdictEssex should be considered serious promotion challengers and will remain dangerous in limited-overs cricket. Anything less than promotion and a place in the knock-out stages must be considered a disappointment.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo