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'In my heart of hearts, I wanted to play on' - Foster

James Foster jumps for joy on reaching his hundred Getty Images

The 2017 season was one hell of a ride for a pair of veteran former England wicketkeepers: Chris Read called time on his 20-year career with a trio of triumphs - the T20 Blast and Royal London Cup titles, as well as promotion from the second division of the County Championship, a feat that he himself helped to secure with a match-saving century at Sussex in his final first-class appearance.

And then there was James Foster - two years Read's junior at the age of 37 but, by his own admission, sorely tempted to go out on a high as well, after fulfilling one of the greatest ambitions of his career in helping his county Essex romp to their first County Championship title for 25 years.

But, in the end, the temptation for Foster to put his body on the line for at least one more season proved too alluring. He signed a contract extension in November, and is now on hand for his county once again - a vital wise old head in the dressing room at Chelmsford, as Essex seek to back up an unforgettable triumph with another hard-bitten campaign.

"It was a wonderful season for us last year, and no doubt there was a possibility of finishing on such a high, but ultimately, in my heart of hearts, I knew I really wanted to play," Foster told ESPNcricinfo.

"I think it's when you get towards the back end of your career, you weigh up other career opportunities, and sometimes you take up opportunities when you can still be good enough to keep playing."

And in Foster's case, those opportunities revolve around his burgeoning credentials as a coach. He cut his teeth at Forest School in East London, where he's been the cricket professional for the past three seasons, but stepped up his development this winter during a month-long stint with Khulna Titans in the Bangladesh Premier League, before linking up with the England Lions and Ashes squads in Australia.

"I really enjoy coaching and I had a really good winter," he said. "I've just been building up my experience. Working under Mahela Jayawardene at Khulna Titans was absolute class, and the high performance stuff has really whet my appetite.

"I'm still learning so much about coaching," he added. "I think the naive thing is going from being a player to being a coach, and thinking you know how to coach just because you've had experience playing. Some people have coached for years and years to build up that experience. I've still got a lot of things to learn and that's why I'm very grateful for this winter. It's speeded up my learning while I'm still playing."

That learning may well be accelerated this summer as well, given that the one significant change to Essex's set-up for 2018 comes right at the top - with Chris Silverwood, their highly-rated coach, moving on to a full-time role as England's bowling coach.

Anthony McGrath has stepped up from his assistant's role to fill the vacancy, with Dimitri Mascarenhas joining the staff as well. But Foster's experience in the dressing-room will doubtless be an asset as the season progresses, especially if the squad starts to lose focus amid the fuss that comes with being reigning champions.

"As a club we need to forget about last year," he said. "There are still various accolades that we are collecting from last season - and with only a week and a half to go until the season, I don't really like that, there's a danger that you can get brainwashed. It's time to knuckle down and start again.

"We've got to switch on. There's a fair bit of weather around, so there are lots of possible distractions and excuses. It's tough for the groundsmen to get the pitches ready, our indoor school is not quite ready still having the right mindset will be a massive part for us, because we've got to remind ourselves how we went about our business last year. As a team, that'll give us the best chance of success."

Foster's hunger for the new campaign is self-evident, and it is plain to see why he chose to defer those fleeting thoughts of retirement - even though, at the start of last year's campaign, he was surplus to the team's requirements, with Adam Wheater preferred as wicketkeeper for the opening four rounds. Rising to the challenge, Foster battled back into the line-up by mid-May, and was retained as wicketkeeper, with Wheater playing as a batsman, by the season's end.

"That was the choice of the decision-makers up top, but ultimately every time I play, I want to do well and the team I play for to perform," Foster said. "It wasn't difficult for me to be up for the season because that's generally what I try to do every year I play

"Ultimately I still enjoy playing. I still enjoy the buzz of it, I still enjoy the challenge of it. I still find cricket exceptionally difficult. I thought it would get easier the older I got but I'm not sure that's the case. It's not always good, there are always failures along the way, but it's how you bounce back from them which I quite enjoy.

"The end is going to come sooner rather than later, that's for sure," he added. "It's a combination of whether the club still want me to be here, and if I want to keep playing, only time will tell. As long as I'm performing, the club will want to keep me on, but that's to worry about further down the line. For now it's about focusing on the start of the season.

"We were a force last year and the way we won the title, by a distance, was bizarre. That doesn't happen often. Can we do it again? Absolutely, why not? But as long as we are switched on and strip everything back, rather than look at the end result, and stick to the old clich of going through our processes, I think we've got a great opportunity."