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In 1979 the Essex cricketers defied the club's long history of never winning a first-class competition by carrying off both the Benson and Hedges Cup and the Schweppes County Championship. Their friends were relieved. They had played the part of colourful, quixotic extras for so long they had presented players of star quality along the 103 years of their first-class involvement and were cheered always by a devoted audience. Yet it looked as if they would dance forever in the shadows.
Old scorecards proved Essex's eccentricity. They could beat the best and lose to the worst. Which side was taken for 721 runs in a day by the 1948 Australians? Why, Essex of course. Which side collapsed against the rampaging Surrey in the fifties, snicked a couple of tail-end runs to escape the follow-on, then proceeded to bowl out Surrey for 119, thus leaving themselves under four hours in which to score 256 to win against the bowling of Bedser, Loader, Lock and Laker? Who would have the impertinence to do that, and win with two wickets to spare? Essex.
If you need an explanation of this Essex instability, though I doubt if it is that simple, you may blame it on the nomadic years. Their cricket was played mostly at Leyton, which was rural in the early part of the century. But when London's eastern suburbs spread, engulfing the County Ground, the Essex circus hit the road and the cricket was shared between nine grounds-- Leyton, Southend, Westcliff, Romford, Brentwood, Ilford, Colchester, Clacton and Chelmsford.
On the road with the players went every piece of equipment; hundreds of yards of seven-foot screening with poles, stands, chairs and benches, score-card printing machinery, boundary boards, a heavy roller, marquees and a portable office ... oh! and later went the famous double-decker buses--one housing the scoreboard and the other the ladies' lavatory.
You can imagine that the Essex administrators, having moved the big top to one of those venues, were keen to stay there as long as possible, and so the pattern of Essex home cricket was often set into weeks. As an opponent, it was always pleasant to find a festival spirit alive in such a week (except perhaps at Westcliff where the pitch was a bit lively), but I can understand how much it damaged the continuity of their own game. Essex, in effect, were always on tour and missed the advantage of playing most of the home matches on one ground.
The modern Essex was set into motion after the Second World War by the benign Tom Pearce. Doug Insole followed with a spell of eleven years as captain, with Trevor Bailey first the assistant-secretary and then secretary. Trevor Bailey recalls how impossible it was for him to separate his administrative and playing pursuits. It was wonderfully impromptu stuff. I recall a game at Romford when there was a huge crowd and I had to ask the opposing captain if I could leave the field to put on my secretary's hat and attend to the late-comers. I did. I went off and helped shift some tables and found room for the people on top of the tables just in front of the sightscreen. We were always impoverished. No-one got turned away.
It was Bailey, in 1965, who attended a dinner to celebrate Worcestershire's Championship. By chance he mentioned to the Warwickshire representatives that the Chelmsford ground was up for sale and that Essex were desperately seeking means of raising the asking price to buy a home of their own. It is history now that Warwickshire's Supporters' Club came up with an interest-free loan. In the year of wonderful achievement in Essex I'll bet there was a glass or two raised in the direction of Edgbaston, because there is no doubt that a settled home pitch brought stability.
Why did Essex win in this particular season, 1979? The truth is, as the old show-biz saying goes, it took them fourteen years to become an overnight success. The move ahead began with the purchase of that Chelmsford ground, and then in 1967 the Essex committee turned their attention to the players. Forced to impose on their staff an act of almost savage pruning, they reduced the active strength to thirteen and killed off Second Eleven cricket. Among those kept in regular employment were a number of youngsters still unproven. It says much for the eye which spotted them that Ray East, David Acfield, John Lever, and Stuart Turner survived to bring home the titles twelve years later. Keith Boyce, until hit by injury, played a vital part on the way to success.
There are other observations to be made. First, the fielding standards achieved by Essex have been a delight to watch. The arrival of the John Player League competition on Sundays, in which fielders became expected to throw themselves around for 40 overs, suited this new young team, I carry vivid memories of Keith Boyce racing in from the boundary, picking up and throwing the ball in one stride, leaping in the air after a throw which has not soared above or dipped below the'keeper's waistline.
Secondly, it is worth noting the balance of skills which were created then and which have been maintained since. Fast bowling has been imported through Boyce and then Norbert Phillip. A high-class batsman who can gather together large innings with attractive strokes came in part with Bruce Francis of Australia, then more positively with the South Africans Lee Irvine and Ken McEwan.
The spin was initially shared between Robin Hobbs, Ray East and Davis Acfield. In other counties the presence of a leg-spinner would stand out as a form of obsolete madness; but leg-spinning has long been Essex's personal fetish-- Peter Smith, Frank Vigar, Dickie Dodds tweaked a few, Greensmith, Hobbs, of course, and Keith Fletcher. How many have noticed that Ray East is the first left-arm spinner at Essex for 20 years?
I played frequently against Essex in those days of their progress towards the unknown. They had a third quality which shone through even the worst performance--humour. They planned their one-day cricket like a war but played it like a party game. In the first three years of John Player Sunday Cricket, which began in 1969, they came third, fourth and second. The loyal Essex crowds loved it! It was a perfect stage for their fielding acrobatics: for the comic mime of Ray East, for David Acfield's treble forte sides; both playing to their most appreciative audience, John Lever.
With the utmost good sense the elders did not frown. There were noises of disciplinary caution, but those came from Brian Taylor, the captain, and he was a splendid influence on his young changes. Pulled a muscle, Turner? I've heard him bark in his sergeant-major's style. Get in the hower, lad; hot water, rub soap in it. It'll bet all right in the morning.
Brian Taylor was a most healthy left-over from another era of personal conduct and principles. In the field he stood Keith Fletcher next to him at slip. Fletcher had played for England and in the Essex side had proved himself a reliable advisor and clever reader of opposing batsmen. Taylor needed this advice and made him the vice-captain in 1971.
Essex had begun their move up the County Championship in 1969 when they reached a respectable sixth place. Their team was clearly designed to compete strongly in any sort of competition and, to bring the tale up to date, they had a couple of narrow misses in 1978--defeat by Somerset in the semi-final of the Gillette cup and second place in the Championship.
In 1979 everything came right. They got off to a flying start in the three-day game and would acknowledge some fortune in the fine weather they experienced in May and early June when other sides were pavilion-bound. By the close they had amassed 281 points to Worcestershire's 204 and Surrey's 192. John Lever had taken 106 wickets at an average of 17.30. Only Derek Underwood, otherwise, had made the hundred-wicket mark.
Yes, everything worked. Experience in the shape of Fletcher and Mike Denness, power from McEwan and Gooch, surprising calm and capability from Brian Hardie, and belligerent assistance along the batting order. Turner and Phillip did the all-round jobs, with Lever, East and Acfield adding the other components.
I met Keith Fletcher at Wimbledon in July. Essex were a long way ahead on points in the Schweppes Championship, but that can be an uneasy race, too. We said, almost together, that as long as Essex, continued to force the pace, and get their runs quickly in the first innings, then they would always give themselves time, precious time, which so many captains undervalue. Fletcher proved that to be a good reader of batsmen is more than halfway to being an outstanding captain. Keith himself hated pressure when he batted and knew better than any how to apply it to others. What many would not suspect is that he is a bit of a gambler, too. He had confidence in his side and backed them to win in every one of his decisions.
In so many ways Essex have been the example to others. Club committees who chase their tails trying to win a major competition with a few quick overseas purchases might well contemplate the preparation which went into Essex's great year--all twelve years of it. Players from other counties who looked with scorn on their obvious enjoyment and humour failed to see how much the laughs were underlayed with serious intent.
Now the second team has been rebuilt. And if you see unknowns like Foster, Mason, Lilley, McEvoy and Pringle play, you will appreciate that it may not take Essex quite so long to come again.