Essex told to 'dream big' in bid to stay up

Neil Wagner will bolster Essex's pace attack as they attempt to survive in Division One Getty Images

Not too much has changed at Essex in the months that have passed since they were confirmed as Division Two champions on a September afternoon last year. Traffic still hums gently by on the Parkway behind the River End. The old brick pavilion, theoretically subject of redevelopment plans, still sits squinting southeast across the square, as it did back in the glory days of Gooch and Fletcher - though there are some new photos on the walls inside, marking the occasion when Ryan ten Doeschate's side secured their promotion against Glamorgan.

There is some fresh signage around the ground and a new sponsor for a place fondly known as the ECG (try saying it with an Australian twang), now officially the Cloudfm County Ground. The Colchester-based facilities management company - no, it is not a radio station - have forked out to renovate the players' changing rooms, so there are clearly some perks to life in Division One. No one will be complaining about the showers at Essex this season.

A sense of anticipation is also in the air, one that has not been felt in these parts since 2010 - the last time Essex attempted to crack Division One of the Championship. They were on a cloud for most of last season, as Chris Silverwood successfully sold his players the dream of getting promoted in his first year as head coach. Now the atmosphere is even more rarefied. "We've got to aim bigger, haven't we," Silverwood smiles.

There is not much talk of survival, although that would surely be an achievement (on three previous trips up, relegation has swiftly followed). Instead, Silverwood and ten Doeschate want Essex to "make our presence felt", and leave the points table to take care of itself. They may not have an international ground, like the other seven teams in the top tier (Taunton will host a T20I this summer) but that won't stop Essex getting a little bit bolshy in their attempts to stay in increasingly elite company.

Silverwood has another mantra, when asked if a county of Essex's means can still win the Championship: "Why not?" It is a decade since Sussex's third title and almost 20 years since Leicestershire; Essex's last success was a quarter of a century ago, in 1992 under Graham Gooch. In recent times, Test match counties have taken the pennant hostage (although Durham may now plead exception).

"We're very confident with our preparation and the squad we've assembled - apart from depth a little bit. But the guys we have, we feel we can compete" Ryan ten Doeschate

"Why not?" Silverwood counters. "You're going back to the Keith Fletcher days. I encourage them to dream big but then you've got to have the courage to chase it. It's our job to create the environment for them to do that, go out and chase things down. They're all so excited about playing in Division One, pitting themselves against the best teams in the country. So, let's go out there and show our skills.

"Every game we'll view as a must-win game. To me it's great that we get to play at Test grounds, it's great experience for the boys. We'll look at it from a positive stance, not feel the pressure of going there. It's part and parcel of the fun of being in Division One."

Ten Doeschate is six degrees of separation from Gooch, in Essex captaincy terms, and grew up closer to East London than east London, but he seems to channel what he calls "the tempo and the mood of the club" as well as any native. Last year, also ten Doeschate's first in charge, was a watershed season in which 1157 Championship runs flowed from his bat but he was surrounded by team-mates making similarly emphatic contributions.

Essex will be hoping for more of the same, particularly given their ability to field a batting order that has plenty of Test - let alone Division One - experience, Alastair Cook's hip problem notwithstanding. Ten Doeschate is not setting any lofty targets, however. "I guess the job of myself and Silvers is to take the pressure away from the players," he says.

"I think it's very dangerous to make that the goal, to stay up. With two teams going down it doesn't leave much margin for error. At the moment we're staying away from numbers and positions, we want to set goals: making our presence felt, being very aggressive, competing all the time. We're very confident with our preparation and the squad we've assembled - apart from depth a little bit. But the guys we have, we feel we can compete."

Essex were competitive for a large part of their previous Division One campaign, in which several of the current squad, including ten Doeschate, Cook, Ravi Bopara and Tom Westley, played a part, but lost four of their final five matches to finish bottom. Ten Doeschate feels better prepared for the challenge this time.

"The mindset was very different back then, we've certainly grown as a four-day team. One of the things back then was the daunting proposition of stepping up; if anything, the division has become a bit tougher, but I think what we can learn from that is not being overawed by it. But getting that balance right, we need to step up, we need to do better than last year but at the same time not focus too much on how difficult it is going to be."

The difficulty is accentuated by Essex needing to replace two club stalwarts in Graham Napier and David Masters, who retired after taking more than 100 wickets between them in 2016. Neil Wagner, the ultra-competitive New Zealand left-arm quick, was talked into signing by old Otago team-mate ten Doeschate and, although he was playing a Test match this time last week and only landed in the country a couple of days ago, he hopes to be "not too jetlagged" to make an impact against previous club Lancashire - for whom he claimed 32 wickets at 29.28 last season - at Chelmsford on Friday.

Wagner has been given his preferred shirt, No. 13 - "First time I've got my number, pretty stoked about that" - and Essex will be hoping that is unlucky for opposition batsmen during his three-month stint.

"He's aggressive, he's in your face, he bowls loads of overs - he's exactly the type of character that we want within our bowling attack," says Silverwood, suggesting that Wagner and former South Africa offspinner Simon Harmer, signed on a Kolpak, will add an "extra dimension" to Essex's bowling this year.

Another thing that may be different around Chelmsford is the identity of the man behind the stumps. James Foster, ten Doeschate's predecessor as captain and first-choice Essex wicketkeeper pretty much since the advent of a two-division Championship, faces renewed competition from Adam Wheater, who left for Hampshire in 2013 but is back and hopeful of finally dislodging "Fozzy". Wheater kept in the match against Durham MCCU earlier this week and, perhaps more significantly, scored a hundred. "We just want to pick what we think is the strongest team to win games, and I'd say Adam's slightly stronger on the batting department," ten Doeschate said, although a final decision is yet to be made.

Cook's injury means Silverwood can defer another tough decision on whether to leave out one of Nick Browne or Varun Chopra, another Essex product enticed back to old haunts, or tinker with the middle order. It will also deprive onlookers of a duel between Cook and his England team-mate James Anderson, a bowler ten Doeschate admits will provide an immediate examination of his team's Division One credentials.

He doesn't pause, though, before suggesting Lancashire may have "a chink in their armour with their batting" that he hopes his bowlers can exploit. For Essex, there's no time like the present to start making your presence felt.