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Essex's great entertainer signs off on top

Graham Napier's wickets helped seal the Division Two title for Essex in his final home appearance Getty Images

Graham Napier is sitting on a bench by the River Gate at Chelmsford, discussing his 26-year association with Essex County Cricket Club. He has been trying to play down his status as an ECG hero - "Gooch, Irani, Prichard, Law, they're the legends of Essex" - but when a supporter spots Napier and makes a beeline for a handshake and a fare-thee-well, the esteem in which he is held is immediately clear.

"Excuse me, this is important," says the man, before turning to address Napier. "Thanks for all you've done, wish you well in the teaching, going to miss your bowling tremendously."

Asked to sum up Napier's importance to the club, beyond the obvious all-round attributes, he adds: "He's an Essex boy through and through and always has been, and that's why the members appreciate him."

Essex, like Yorkshire, set great store by their own, and in Napier's final match as a professional, against Glamorgan last week, the XI comprised nine players who came up through the club. Few have as ardent a following as Napier, a crowd favourite whose capacity for blockbuster feats in an Essex shirt was matched, perhaps, only by his modesty. According to his team-mates, he is known as the "King of Colchester" or the "Prince of Chelmsford" and a stroll in his company involves multiple diversions to clasp hands and pose for selfies, though he looks faintly embarrassed by all the attention.

"I'm not a celebrity or superstar," he says. "I'm just a normal bloke who happens to play cricket for a living, and do very normal things. The nicest part about this week has been walking around the ground and members coming up to you, shaking your hand and saying, 'Thank you for the entertainment.' We're in the entertainment business and if I've entertained them, it means they've been satisfied when they go home."

There is no doubting that Napier entertained. Wielding his Worsop Stebbing like it was Mjölnir and bustling in to deliver magnetic toe-crushers, Napier was one of the most compelling cricketers on the county circuit. Having signalled that this would be his final year, ahead of setting up a cricket academy at the Royal Hospital School in Suffolk, he led the wicket-taking lists for Essex in all three formats and even signed off at Colchester, where he grew up, with the seventh first-class hundred of his career.

His feats in the Championship carried the most significance, as Napier's 63 wickets - with one round of the season to go, no fast bowler in either division has taken more - went a long way towards ensuring Essex would be promoted as Division Two champions. His last appearance at Chelmsford may have been interrupted by one final injury, but as he limped off with another four scalps under his belt (it would have been five but for a dropped catch in the gully), Essex were well on their way to gathering the bonus points they needed to finally return to the top tier after a seven-year absence.

"My bowling action, my mentality and approach is that I have to give it everything, batting, bowling, fielding. The physicality of it all, that's the reason I can't keep doing it"

Napier's calf is strapped up on the final day of the Glamorgan match as he sits and contemplates the possibility of batting one more time. His captain, Ryan ten Doeschate, described him earlier in the match as a player who "writes his own scripts", and now, with Essex wobbling in pursuit of a target of 264, there is the tantalising prospect of him hobbling out to bludgeon the winning runs. However, after playing in 14 out of 15 matches (and 32 of 40 in all competitions) he is satisfied that he has given all he could to the cause.

"The irony is, injuries have plagued my career, but they've also kept me going," he says. "This one, it's about the eighth time I've had this injury in both legs, so it's just a gentle nudge in the back, saying, this is why you're retiring, don't have any other aspirations to keep playing.

"I want to go out knowing there's nothing else to give physically, and that's the way it's worked out."

Injuries may have prevented Napier from spending more time on the field - though 9916 runs and 953 wickets across the three formats is no small return for a player signed on a YTS contract after deciding he was too short to pursue a career as a goalkeeper with Ipswich Town - but they also drove him to greater heights. Having a screw inserted into his back after a stress fracture early in his career took away the pain of bowling and allowed him to remodel his action, with the help of Geoff Arnold, in pursuit of the extra pace that gave his late-swinging yorkers such venom.

That motivation and commitment to fitness allowed him to be increasingly effective the older he got. In 2013, aged 33, Napier averaged 49.75 with the bat while taking 50 first-class wickets in a season for the first time; the following year he eclipsed that effort with 52 at 15.63. This season, with changes to the toss regulations meaning fewer cheap bags for seamers, he has gone better still.

Like the great entertainers, Napier will sign off with Essex fans, in particular, wanting more. But he has earned his rest.

"My whole mentality is all or nothing. I couldn't just run up and try and put the ball on a line and length, it just doesn't work for me - it has to be all or nothing. My bowling action, my mentality and approach is that I have to give it everything, batting, bowling, fielding. And that's part of the reason, the physicality of it all, I can't keep doing that. I can't wake up in the morning and not make it down the stairs. And at some point, it's going to do a lot of damage, so in the long run: enjoy the season, have a great year and get out whilst I'm on top."

The top of his game was not quite enough to win Napier an England cap - the closest he came was being an unused member of the 2009 World T20 squad - but he did achieve something far fewer Englishman can lay claim to, after his extraordinary 158 from 58 balls as a pinch-yourself hitter in 2008 helped earn him an IPL contract with Mumbai Indians.

"Everyone sets out to play for their country at some point, in my case I got as close as you can - I carried the drinks without actually playing for the team," he says. "It would have been lovely to have worn the shirt and played for England, but at the time there were players that were better than me, and they picked what they thought was the best team, and sadly for me I never got to play.

"But that's cricket and I don't regret anything. I've given everything to everything I've ever done and it's the one accolade I didn't achieve that I'd have liked to, but I'm quite content with the way my career's gone."

Napier's quiet satisfaction seems at odds with his tub-thumping exploits - from smashing what was the second-highest individual score in T20, to hitting another sweet 16 sixes in a first-class match (both world records at the time), to taking seven wickets in a 40-over game, including four in four balls and requisitioning Ricky Ponting's middle stump - but he has always been happiest to let his cricket do the talking.

"They're little highlights in a career. I'm very lucky that I've had those moments to cherish. But just playing cricket here at Chelmsford - I think it's a special place. We're a small club compared to a lot of others but we've got a big heart - supporters and as a side. We get well supported in Championship cricket through to T20, and when you play in front of a good crowd supporting cricket as well as us, it's fantastic."

There is "huge sadness" at taking his leave, having been involved with the club since the age of ten, but he goes out with a Division Two winners medal to add to the 2008 FP Trophy, and National League titles in 2005 and 2006. "That's the icing on the cake, the cherry on the top, to win it when only one team goes up and two down," he says.

He also has another nickname, one he is happier to admit to. "Aaron Beard, one of our youngest players coming through, he's started calling me 'Dad' because I moan at him like a dad, trying to just get him fast-tracked as quick as possible, with the knowledge and skills I've gained." Napier's departure - and that of David Masters, who also announced his retirement on the final day against Glamorgan - means there will be big boots for the next generation of Essex boys to fill.

There was, in the end, time for one more innings at Chelmsford, though no fairy-tale finish. Napier's work was already done. The King has left the building.