Countyscape April 22, 2013

What is the matter with Essex?

Two matches into the Championship season and it is already time to ask 'What has gone wrong with Essex?'

The title of Chinua Achebe's novel, Things Fall Apart, might have referred to Essex's disintegration at Wantage Road. A series of rash shots contributed to Essex losing 20 wickets for 390 on a pitch on which Northamptonshire's last two wickets looted 228 at more than six runs an over.

So what, exactly, is the matter with Essex?

Yes, we are only two games into the Championship season, but this is not a matter of knee-jerkism. Essex have now won only nine of their last 50 Championship games. Had head coach Paul Grayson, too devastated to speak, answered questions after the innings defeat at Wantage Road, he would have faced no shortage of them.

Some supporters are even questioning the shelf life of Paul Grayson: he has been coach for six years but any tangible sense of improvement is lacking.

There is some impressive pace-bowling talent at Chelmsford - left-armer Reece Topley mixes dangerous swing with impressive cricketing nous for a 19-year-old - but at the moment it is being wasted. Tymal Mills and Maurice Chambers are often branded together with Topley yet Mills too often bowled short on leg stump and Chambers short outside off.

Bowling the pair together - as happened when David Willey and Steven Crook amassed a century stand for the ninth wicket at seven an over - looked a liability that the captain, James Foster, cannot afford. And Foster did have other options: Ravi Bopara only bowled three overs of medium-pace and Greg Smith - despite batting in the allrounder's slot of No 7 - none at all.

With the exemplary David Masters injured, that only makes the treatment of Sajid Mahmood more baffling. Signed on a not inconsiderable contract, Mahmood has so far been playing 2nd X1 cricket. Such is the erraticism of his rivals that even Mahmood could hardly fail to bring the attack more control.

Against Northants, the batting was even worse: players consistently looked good only to be undone by sloppy shots, especially to short balls outside off stump. It can't help that Essex have Owais Shah and Ryan ten Doeschate currently playing in the IPL. Or at least playing in theory; neither has so far appeared.

Shah normally bats at No 3. His replacement Ben Foakes has begun the Championship season with 18 runs from three innings and is not ready to bat there at this stage of his career. Perhaps Bopara, having rediscovered his timing, should bat at three until Shah's return.

If some of the batting against Northants could be described as of the Twenty20 variety that was perhaps no coincidence. The impression, for several years, has been that Essex prioritise limited-overs competitions over the four-day game, with players like Shah and, especially, ten Doeschate, more effective in these. That may be unfair - speaking after the defeat to Northants, Foster certainly didn't sound like a man neglecting the County Championship - but until Essex gain promotion, the charge will remain.

And it's not as if Essex aren't producing any four-day players; they just move on. Varun Chopra and Chris Wright open the batting and bowling for the county champions, Warwickshire. It is a puzzle and it does not reflect well upon Essex, that so many players - Derbyshire seamer Tony Palladino could also be added to that list - need a move away from Chelmsford to reinvigorate their careers.

Adam Wheater, who began his Hampshire Championship career with an unbeaten half-century last week, aims to be the latest. Perhaps Essex were faced with an impossible situation: Wheater wanted to keep wicket and in Foster they have arguably the best keeper in the world, while Foakes is also a promising backup.

Yet might some compromise have been possible? Wheater could have been promised the gloves in one-day cricket, say, or Foster even relinquished them for some Championship games. That might seem ridiculous given Foster's keeping prowess, but he is 33 and Wheater is 23 and a good enough player to be worthy of compromise.

It could also be argued that current arrangements are not conducive to Foster. To remain an effective captain while maintaining his exemplary standards with the bat and gloves must be a very tiring job. Giving Foster a break from the captaincy in limited-overs cricket has worked for Chris Read at Nottinghamshire. It might be an idea worth pursuing, although it is less attractive now Wheater has gone on his way.

Essex might justifiably point out they are doing some things right - in Tom Westley's serene batting and Topley's bowling, they have two players of international potential. But no county is producing so much talent for so little on-pitch reward.

Good Week

Mike Reed
With a build and action evoking Steve Harmison, Mike Reed's bounce and movement wrecked Worcestershire's first innings. He claimed 5 for 27, his first Championship five-fer, to set up Glamorgan's victory. Credit should also go to his county's perseverance in developing his talent. Although he is 24, Reed had accomplished very little in the game until this season.

Alviro Petersen
All the attention was on one South Africa opener making his debut at The Oval. But while Graeme Smith made only two, Alviro Petersen struck 167 and 91 in the match, playing with an assuredness Somerset's top order lacked. It would have been a frustrating sight for Essex, too: Petersen averaged only 21 in seven Championship games for them last season.

Bad Week

Chris Tremlett
England are clearly hoping that Chris Tremlett will appear in the two Ashes series this year, but he will first need to break into the Surrey side: he was surprisingly omitted for their first game - prompting a call from Andy Flower. Both Surrey quicks who played instead - Jade Dernbach and Stuart Meaker - justified their inclusions with five-wicket hauls but Tremlett may replace Gary Keedy, who recorded match figures of 1 for 116 against Somerset, for this week's game with Sussex.

Durham's top order
As well as Warwickshire bowled - particularly Chris Wright, whose England chances are beginning to look more realistic - there could be no excusing Durham's two shambolic top-order collapses: their first six wickets fell for 50 in the first innings and 37 in the second. In 16 innings this season the first four Durham batsmen have scored a total of 99 runs between them. Recruiting an overseas batsman could be a shrewd investment to increase their chances of Championship survival.

Dig-In of the Week
Billy Godleman - another player unfulfilled at Essex - displayed remarkable obtrusiveness at Lord's, batting 265 deliveries for 55. He unwisely reverted to pinch-hitting, with a strike-rate of 75, in the second innings, but that is not his game: he made only three as Derbyshire were routed for 60.

Fixture of the Week

Derbyshire v Nottinghamshire, County Championship, Division One, County Ground, Wednesday

Is it too early to talk of a game football cliché enthusiasts would describe as a 'relegation six-pointer'? Perhaps not for Derbyshire, who will need to win perhaps three home games to have a good chance of avoiding relegation. The East Midlands derby against a Nottinghamshire side who began poorly against Middlesex at Trent Bridge will tell us much.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on April 24, 2013, 12:37 GMT

    Essex have had a disastrous start and there definitely seems to be a problem with captain and coach at the club. That they have let so many cricketers go who have gone on to perform and bought in so many players that haven't.... Willoughby for Wright was he one that had me standing at the top of a tall building.

    We even sign really poor overseas players (Harbajhan last year 1 or 2 wickets for 2000 runs). Apologies to Quinney as its early days.

    Light at the end of the tunnel is a new chief exec. He needs to work hard but at least can start with a new broom.

  • Gary on April 24, 2013, 11:39 GMT

    I get the feeling Essex players were only telling Grayson with bat and ball what they think of him.

  • Dummy4 on April 23, 2013, 9:44 GMT

    Thanks for comments - given that the IPL goes on until the end of May, think a clash is unavoidable at least for the next few years. @essexcricketboy - Napier was indeed terrific (and praised in the match report) but Essex seem over-reliant on him. Given his body, its also unlikely he'll play more than about 10 CC games this season.

  • paul on April 23, 2013, 9:39 GMT

    One further observation, i just looked at the cricket headlines on BBC teletext. Unfortunately, it does not make good reading for an Essex fan today.

    "Westfield summoned to Kaneria appeal" referring to 2 former Essex players mixed up with match fixing

    "Grayson sorry for 'shambolic' Essex which relates to the recent performance, and to rub it in

    "Wright inspires Warwickshire wn" , Wright being a former Essex player, who i liked but some did not when at Essex and now opens the bowling for division ne champions , Warwicks, coached by a former Essex coach. I do think Foster does too much, as captain and w/k and batsman. Although, probably no real alternative, unless Pettini is reinstated, not sure if his batting is good enough and was unsuccessful when he did it before. Not convinced about Bopara. Ideally and should have been done years ago, an outsider very good batsman should be brought in to shake things up a bit, seems like it just a bit too cosy at Essex.

  • paul on April 23, 2013, 8:30 GMT

    "what's the matter with Essex", a first class article, imo. It is a beautiful day here in Essex, Tuesday, 23rd April 2013. Alas there is no cricket for Essex until next Monday when Essex entertain Hants with a 4 day game followed by a 40 over televised game on May 3rd . Now the big question is, given the form of both the batting and bowling of Essex, as of now, will the 4 day game actually last 4 days. Hopefully Essex, being notoriously unpredictable, will put in a stronger performance. Changes will no doubt made, although apart from Masters and Cook, i am not convinced there is an awful lot in reserve, possibly Mickleburgh and just maybe some little known bowler/batsman will appear and do the business, i hope.

  • Dummy4 on April 22, 2013, 23:41 GMT

    I think you've missed out a four day player that Essex have produced. Rumour has it that there's a tasty left-hand opening batsman at the club who could go on to do very well for England in Test cricket.

  • stuart on April 22, 2013, 15:56 GMT

    ironic that Essex seem to lose their team spirit once Shah joins them.ironically Middlesex do better after he goes

  • Tom on April 22, 2013, 13:59 GMT

    Dr Vindaloo is right, in fact we should probably push the English season back until mid June, so we can expand the IPL further. The English season can go on for 8 weeks, that should be enough for anybody.

  • Cricinfouser on April 22, 2013, 13:24 GMT

    @Dr.Vindaloo - Your solution doesn't unfortunately solve the problem. An English season starting in May would still clash with the IPL. If English teams are to remain competitive in ODIs and T20s, you cannot get rid of one of domestic versions. Some may not want to watch May tests but I'd suggest that more people won't want to watch a 5 test series against Bangladesh or Zimbabwe. Summers where New Zealand or West Indies were the sole tourist would also be difficult to sell to spectators and broadcasters. Given that Australia, India and South Africa should tour at least every four years, that doesn't leave much room for the rest.