<
>

Silverwood's dream awakens Essex slumber

The Essex balcony rises to applaud the bonus point that secured promotion Getty Images

There is an air of quiet satisfaction at Chelmsford, the morning after Essex sealed their return to the top division of the Championship. Chris Silverwood, the head coach, is in great demand, while club legends such as Graham Gooch, John Lever and Nasser Hussain can be spotted on their peregrinations, shaking hands and exchanging nods. Former captain Brian "Tonker" Taylor, at the venerable age of 84, was said to have commandeered a taxi to come to the ground.

The players had been allowed a minor knees up the night before, sitting on the team balcony and belting out a few numbers, although celebrations will begin in earnest at the conclusion of their match against Glamorgan - and possibly once again after the presentation of the Division Two trophy at Canterbury next week. Promotion secure, the hard work done, Essex are heading in the right direction again. As Hussain jokingly puts it: "The home of cricket is back."

It will take a lot more hard work for them to stay in Division One, not that anybody here is about to dispute that. Essex have been promoted on three occasions since two divisions were instated only to be relegated immediately each time. But ambitions have been awakened - "I don't just want to compete up there, I want to beat people," Silverwood says - and the planning to avert a similar fate next year begins almost straight away.

"I like dreaming," Silverwood says, the twinkle in his eye discernible despite the presence of shades. "I say to the guys, dream and dream big and have the courage to chase it. That's what we're doing out there. The dream of playing for England, the dream of winning trophies and being successful. Let's chase it, let's have a go."

Even as the T20 debate seemingly takes a decisive twist away from the smaller counties, Essex have found that the Championship is the stuff that dreams are made on. They are not ready for a rude awakening.

Silverwood and his four-day captain, Ryan ten Doeschate, have enjoyed success at the first time of asking, pulling together a dressing room that had a reputation for failing to deliver despite a truckload of talent. Having been assistant coach under his predecessor, Paul Grayson, Silverwood had first-hand experience of seeing Essex stumble - and he remains disappointed by two more quarter-final defeats in this season's limited-overs competitions - but he did not believe that major changes were required.

"I was very much a part of that era, working under Paul and I'll always be grateful to him for giving me that opportunity in county cricket. The time was right, we put a structure in place and everybody bought into it - partnerships with bat and ball, little targets, achievable goals - if we do this, this is where we'll end up."

The tone was set by ten Doeschate's decision to skip the IPL and commit himself to a full season of Championship cricket. It may not have been the glamorous decision but passing 1000 first-class runs in a campaign for the first time was rich reward. "Define glamour," Silverwood grins knowingly.

Taking each game as it comes and creating the right environment for players to excel in are sporting clich├ęs but that does not necessarily neutralise their effectiveness. Ten Doeschate chose to focuse on the team's efforts after he had hit the run to secure promotion on Tuesday evening and Silverwood pushes a similar philosophy. "The Yorkshire dressing room that I grew up in was very much about the team first," he says.

With 18 Championship hundreds, shared between eight different players, and 10 five-wicket hauls, Essex have at last parlayed collective bargaining power into a season of compelling cricket. Alastair Cook, who arrived to take part in the celebrations, chipped in whenever England would let him, while the names of the key contributors - ten Doeschate, Graham Napier, Tom Westley, Nick Browne, James Foster, Jamie Porter, David Masters - inspire wide-ranging affection among the club's passionate (and occasionally belligerent) support base.

"At any given point someone has dug deep," Silverwood says. "Cooky dug deep for us at Sussex, Dan Lawrence dug deep for us at Leicester, when we were in trouble there - no one would have backed us to get the score we did after being 68 for 5. But again the confidence comes through from processes put in place, and playing on better wickets, really, allowing the batsmen to score a weight of runs which the bowlers can then use as scoreboard pressure to put other teams under the pump."

It is perhaps ironic that the change to the toss regulations this year has helped Essex to come up with a promotion-winning strategy. Jesse Ryder's two seasons of menacing visiting batsmen at Chelmsford were considered to be one of the reasons the ECB instigated change but Silverwood has been all in favour, with Essex posting big totals and then working through opponents with a battery of varied seamers.

That will be harder to do in Division One, all the more so due to the retirements of Napier (confirmed) and Masters (expected). Mohammad Amir has been mooted as a potential overseas signing - "He's a good bowler, who wouldn't want him?" Silverwood says - and a top-class spinner would also be a useful addition. Essex have barely employed spin this year - Westley, Lawrence and Ashar Zaidi have bowled less than 150 overs between them - with few Division Two sides having produced turning pitches but the situation in the top tier has been markedly different.

These will be the topics under discussion between Silverwood and ten Doeschate, not to mention Ronnie Irani, the chairman of the cricket committee who Silverwood says he speaks to most days. Irani may have been occasionally divisive as a player - and his return last year also caused ructions - but Essex have forged a strong sense of common identity over the last 12 months. Where previous seasons have seen promising players depart for challenges elsewhere, this time they are coming back: Varun Chopra and Adam Wheater already re-signed to add some Division One steel.

"They wanted to come back to Essex because they can see what we're trying to achieve," Silverwood says. "They've seen the potential and they're excited and want to be part of it. A few years ago the club was criticised because people were leaving us - well, I think we need praising now, because people want to come back. And I find that really exciting because an Essex boy in an Essex shirt will push hard for Essex because that's his county."

There's a hint of Yorkshire about this, too, though Essex, home to England's two greatest Test run-makers, has a reputation of its own to polish. Silverwood, who is among Andy Flower's burgeoning network of Lions coaches, might also be on the radar at his home county - where there will be a significant vacancy opening up shortly - but he stresses that his current goal is beating Yorkshire rather than joining them. "I would love to take the big boys down," he smiles, looking ahead to next season. Essex won't have to wait much longer for their chance.