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Tom Westley seeks uplift after 'strange' start to Essex's twin title defence

Captain still adamant his team is the best in the country, as key players struggle for best form

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
Tom Westley cuts through the off side  •  Getty Images

Tom Westley cuts through the off side  •  Getty Images

Halfway through the group stage of the Championship, and Essex have got it all to do. The defending champions are currently fifth in Group One - albeit only 15 points off a top-two spot - and in need of a run of good form in order to make sure of qualifying for Division One when the competition splits. If Tom Westley, Essex's captain, had been hoping a return to Chelmsford would spark an uplift after two defeats and a draw on the road, then a washed-out first day against Derbyshire only served to dampen the mood.
Westley admits it has been a "strange start" to the season. Having scored 490 for 9 declared in their opening game, only to be held to a draw by Worcestershire, Essex then recovered from being skittled for 96 by Durham to defend their manor in the manner to which most observers have become accustomed - scrapping hard in the second innings to post a target of 168, and then defending it ruthlessly on the back of another Simon Harmer ten-for.
But defeats at Edgbaston, by seven wickets, and Trent Bridge, by an innings, either side of another stalemate away to Worcestershire have left Westley puzzling over how to get what he views as "the best team in the country" playing like they can.
"Things definitely could be going a bit better," he tells ESPNcricinfo. "It's been quite challenging, a bit disappointing for the standards that we set at Essex. We're used to winning lots of games of cricket, which hasn't been the case this year. Halfway through, still a lot of games to be played and the group is tight - if you win a couple of games all of a sudden you're right back up there.
"It's been quite strange, in that we've been bowled out for less than 100 twice, and we've also got 500 twice. We haven't been able to piece the whole game together with bat and ball. Certain games we've batted really well and bowled not as well, and in other games we've bowled well and not batted well. Which is the crux of cricket, I suppose.
"It's immensely frustrating not being able to piece it together. It's been a reminder of how hard four-day cricket is, especially when the some of the surfaces have been either way - very flat or [doing a bit]. It's a strange start for us."
Nevertheless, and despite the bleak scene through the rain-spattered windows of the Scrutton Bland Premier Suite, Westley remains visibly chipper, confident that Essex's recent history suggests they are more than capable of turning things around - before the loss to Warwickshire, they had gone two years and 21 first-class games without defeat, winning 14 of them.
"The spirits have been quite good around the place, considering how poorly we've started by our standards," he said. "We have been so used to winning, sometimes you get a bit expectant of that. Many factors go into not winning, I think this is probably the first time in a few years when we've had more than one or two guys a little bit struggling for form - which can happen.
"But we've got to be mindful that when it does turn, and we start playing our best cricket, I firmly believe we are the best team in the country so there's no reason why we can't get on a roll. We're a team that have shown in the past that once we do get on a roll, we can go on for a long period of time. That's what we're focusing on."
Of the players who have struggled so far, perhaps of chief concern is Jamie Porter, the spearhead of the attack, who has so far managed just six wickets at an average of 65.83; meanwhile, batting stalwarts Alastair Cook and former captain Ryan ten Doeschate have managed one hundred and one fifty between them.
But while there has been some rotation of the bowlers in an attempt to manage workloads, and Essex expect to lose Dan Lawrence imminently to the England Test bubble, there is no mood to make wholesale changes. "Form is temporary, class is permanent," Westley says. "That is the message that we say in our changing room. You don't become a bad team overnight, you can't forget all the hard work and success we've had in the last four-five years."
Westley does admit that questions will be asked if Essex can't hustle their way into Division One, and thereby keep alive their twin defence of the County Championship and Bob Willis Trophy. The visit of Derbyshire, winless and bottom of Group One, ought to represent a chance to burnish their credentials once again, though it may need some canny captaincy reminiscent of the Keith Fletcher era to pull off victory in the equivalent of three days (or fewer, given the weather forecasts). Just don't tell the Chelmsford scriptwriters it can't be done.
"It would be a huge disappointment if we don't get into that top division, especially given the success that is expected of us at the club. But I'm an optimistic, positive person. I believe we are the sort of team that can win the next four games and then you look back and think 'Oh, what was the issue?' But we have to do that first. It would be bitterly disappointing but, if for whatever reason we don't make that, it's our own fault and we've got to accept that.
"It's frustrating, losing a day to the rain isn't ideal when you know you have games to win. And because we've lost the toss, it probably makes it a little bit harder to win while batting first. But I think the script that Essex generate for themselves over the last few years, you never know what's going to happen."

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick