Essex troubled by run of near misses
Championship: 3rd Div Two; NatWest Blast: Quarter-finals; Royal London Cup: Quarter-finals
Out: Ben Foakes (Surrey), Sajid Mahmood, Tom Craddock (both released), Tim Phillips (retired), Tymal Mills (Sussex)
Overseas: Jesse Ryder, Shaun Tait (T20)
2014 in a nutshell
It was the usual cocktail of promise, frustration and near misses for regular visitors to Chelmsford. A rousing charge down the final straight, in which Essex won six Championship games out of seven, was not quite enough to secure promotion, although they gained the dubious distinction of having achieved the highest points total without going up since the creation of two divisions. In all competitions, Essex won 22 times, behind only Warwickshire - but two home defeats, both to Warwickshire, in the quarter-finals of the T20 Blast and Royal London Cup left behind a sense of what might have been. Injuries were a problem, leading to chances for several young players, but while Jesse Ryder established himself as a local hero, Tymal Mills faded from England prospect to ex-Essex boy.
The squad again looks strong, though Mills and Ben Foakes are the latest young talents to move on and Essex will have to cope with the absence of Ravi Bopara and Ryan ten Doeschate at the IPL for the first six weeks of the season. Ryder is due to return and Essex will hope his seam-bowling remains as effective - he was their leading Championship wicket-taker in 2014 - while Shaun Tait will provide a more explosive option in T20. Should Graham Napier, David Masters and Reece Topley avoid the problems that limited their 2014 involvement then promotion ought to be within their compass; coach Paul Grayson would dearly love a trophy to prove that there is substance to back up the perennial hype at Essex.
After seven years in charge, Grayson's authority is only occasionally questioned around New Writtle Street - he seems to have weathered a stormy period that whipped up at the start of 2013 - but Essex's habit of falling just short is troubling. Grayson has two captains to work with in trying to land a prize or two this year: the evergreen James Foster in Championship cricket, where he led the run-scoring once again; and Ryan ten Doeschate in the T20 and 50-over competitions.
Ryder may never play for New Zealand again - another comeback with the A side was aborted last year - but Essex fans will be the richer. After settling in quickly, he signed a two-year contract at the end of 2014, news that was greeted by rapturous applause at an autumnal ECG. His powerful strokeplay can win matches in all formats; he only averaged 37.05 in the Championship, so there should be more to come. Also proved an unexpectedly wily seamer capable of taking the new ball.
Bright young thing
Nick Browne broke into the first XI during the second half of last season and, against Derbyshire at Chesterfield, became the first Essex batsman to hit unbeaten hundreds in both innings of a Championship match. A tall left-hander with a physique and stance reminiscent of Marcus Trescothick - if not the range of attacking strokes - Browne's tally of three centuries, from nine matches, was more than any of his team-mates. Could be the sort of remorseless run-getting opener Essex have lacked since Alastair Cook graduated to bigger things.
As ever, Essex ought to be in the mix for Championship promotion, should be one of the strongest T20 sides around and could be a good bet for the 50-over cup as well. Youth will be given its head but cynics will start wondering which club cap it will be wearing a year or two down the line. It's time to break the cycle. No batsman has passed 1000 first-class runs in a season since 2009 but, if that statistic is erased, they have the bowling to prosper.
LV= Championship Div 2 7-2, NatWest Blast 12-1, Royal London Cup 12-1
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick