Defining fixture looms for Essex
When Essex and Birmingham meet with a sinewy crunch in what has the potential to be a particularly feisty NatWest T20 Blast quarter-final on Thursday evening, there could be more at stake than a place at Finals Day. For Essex, the trip to Edgbaston to take on the defending champions may go a long way to defining their season.
Defeat on the final day against Surrey at Castle Park earlier in the week all but ended hopes of promotion from Division Two of the Championship for another year. Instead of narrowing the gap on second-placed Surrey, Essex are now 70 points adrift and facing a sixth consecutive season in the second tier.
"Plus ca change," the learned regulars at New Writtle Street might say. Essex's form in white-ball cricket, having overcome a wobble that saw them lose four of their first five Blast fixtures, has been reassuringly solid and victory over Birmingham would give them another shot at winning a trophy much coveted around Chelmsford. They are also on course to reach the last eight in the Royal London Cup.
Still, it appears that the position of head coach, Paul Grayson, is under increasing scrutiny - perhaps more so than at any other time in his eight years in the job. Ronnie Irani, the former captain and a man with a formidable Essex reputation, marked his election as cricket committee chairman last month by saying that the club had "underachieved" and offering equivocal support for Grayson, a team-mate of several years through the 1990s and early 2000s.
"At this moment in time Paul is the head coach and we have to respect that position until the cricket committee decide on anything different," he told the Essex Chronicle. "We have a meeting in August, where I am sure that the decision will be made on not just Paul's future but the future of certain players as well."
Irani's return also increases the pressure, as he was effectively Grayson's predecessor. As captain, Irani ran the side to the extent that Graham Gooch moved sideways from head coach to a batting role; when Irani retired in 2007, Grayson stepped up from the 2nd XI to provide Irani's successor, the 23-year-old Mark Pettini, with greater support.
Irani has suggested that Championship promotion ought to be a priority, something Grayson has only achieved once, in 2009 - though Essex were a little unfortunate to miss out last season, finishing third behind Hampshire and Worcestershire with the highest points tally of a side not to be promoted since two divisions were introduced.
Inequalities within the game have widened over the last decade, of course, and Essex have cut their cloth accordingly. The club has little or no debt, they market limited-overs games well, and rely largely on a production line of young players supplemented by the odd big-name signing. As many counties, particularly those who do not host international matches, will attest, Championship cricket remains the bread and butter but the margins are better in limited-overs fizz.
And Essex are fizzier than most. Since the start of 2008, Grayson's first full season in charge, only Hampshire have won more List A and T20 games than Essex's 116. Hampshire, however, have converted their 118 victories into silverware more effectively, lifting the Friends Provident/Clydesdale Bank trophy twice in that time to go with two T20 triumphs; Essex won the FP trophy back in 2008 (as well as Division Two of the Pro40 League) but have since only managed a succession of near misses.
While Chelmsford has a reputation as a T20 cauldron, and only twice under Grayson have they failed to make it out of the group stage, their three Finals Day appearances to date have each ended with an early bus ride home. For a side that has been able to call upon, at various times over the last few years, Ravi Bopara, Ryan ten Doeschate, James Foster, Graham Napier, Owais Shah, Jesse Ryder, Reece Topley and Shaun Tait, the absence of a T20 title is glaring.
Topley, the 21-year-old left-armer who was included in England's last T20 squad, recognises the need for Essex to go a step further and collect tangible reward for their limited-overs chops.
"In the five years that I've been involved, we should have won at least one trophy," he said. "I think I speak for all of the boys when I say we don't quite understand why we haven't. We've tended to dominate in the group stages but, for whatever reason, haven't gone on to reach many finals and semi-finals."
Grayson doubtless knows all this and will be hoping he still has the opportunity to address the omission come Friday morning. There have been a few significant missteps during Grayson's tenure - the signing of Saj Mahmood, Dwayne Bravo's ill-fated arrival for Finals Day in 2010, and the departure of several talented players who have thrived elsewhere all spring to mind - but overall he seems to have managed limited resources with some skill.
At the start of the summer, Grayson was confident enough to suggest that Essex could "go all the way in all three formats", though he then checked his enthusiasm a touch by referring to the depth of the squad and saying: "We may have to neglect one of the competitions to achieve our goals this year."
The Championship has already fallen by the wayside and Essex can ill afford a T20 blowout as well. Last season, Birmingham sneaked into the Blast quarter-finals in the final round and then ousted table-topping Essex on their home ground on the way to winning the competition. For one man in particular, a reversal of fortunes would be priceless.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick