News Analysis

Why Essex shocked English cricket: five key factors

Essex's anticipated title win has been perhaps the biggest surprise in the Championship since the advent of two divisions. Here we look at some of the key factors on their road to the pennant

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
Alastair Cook has spearheaded Essex's title challenge, Specsavers Championship Division One, Chelmsford, June 28, 2017

Alastair Cook helped Essex settle into Division One life  •  Getty Images

Essex's title win, seemingly hours away, has been perhaps the biggest surprise in the Championship since the advent of two divisions. Here we look at some of the key factors on their road to the pennant.
Cook availability
A rare example of the England fixture list playing into a county's hands. With no Tests scheduled until July - and Alastair Cook re-energised after giving up the captaincy following a draining winter on the subcontinent - Essex had the regular services of an England heavyweight to deploy on their return to Division One. He was available for the first eight matches (although he missed the opener with a hip niggle), by which stage Essex had built a 31-point lead at the top. Like a latter-day Gooch, minus the lip-tickler, Cook harvested 667 runs in 10 innings, with each of his three hundreds - 110 in the second innings at Taunton, 124 against Hampshire and 193 in the day-night match versus champions Middlesex - coming in Essex wins. Never mind the farm, this was Cook in charge of his manor.
Resilient start
In the first match of the season, at home to Lancashire, Essex conceded a 160-run first-innings deficit and were then asked to bat four sessions to save the game. They did, thanks to a fine, unbeaten hundred from Dan Lawrence, during which he faced 333 balls (echoes of Gooch again). In the next round, a shortfall of 80 runs against Somerset was parlayed into an eight-wicket win, with Cook guiding Essex home on a tricky pitch. They then managed to squeak out with a draw against Middlesex, with the aid of bad weather, despite scores of 295 and 160 for 8 on a Lord's featherbed. Ryan ten Doeschate's aim at the start of the season was to get to the break for the Royal London Cup after three games and take stock: a win and two draws was far handier than it might have been.
Porter and Harmer
Jamie Porter is the sort of back-bending, uncomplaining fast bowler who would make a dray horse question their work rate. Having passed 50 wickets two years running in Division Two, the uncertainty about how he would handle the step up hovered over an Essex attack that had lost David Masters and Graham Napier to retirement. Porter, a keen West Ham fan, responded by blowing bubbles in the face of any doubters, with his best-ever season; he is currently the leading wicket-taker in Division One, with team-mate Simon Harmer just behind. Harmer was not among the most high-profile of the glut of winter Kolpak signings but he has been comfortably the most successful, consecutive 14-wicket hauls in mid-season proof that Essex finally had a top-class spinner. Porter's beaming red face and Harmer's flapping fringe have been emblems of their success.
Collective batting
While Cook tops the averages, Essex's strong team mentality has shone through, with eight different players scoring hundreds. Tom Westley and Lawrence were prominent in the first half of the season; ten Doeschate, warrior-leader in the 2016 promotion campaign, contributed 168 not out to victory at Guildford; opener Nick Browne, who crushed a double, and Varun Chopra joined Cook in reaching three figures in the pink-ball match against Middlesex. Meanwhile, a double-century stand between Ravi Bopara - who made his first Championship hundred for three seasons - and James Foster at Chelmsford, helping to see off Warwickshire by an innings, had the most hardened of Essex geezers contemplating giving someone a hug. Even Adam Wheater has played his part, with a vital 88 against Somerset last month to paper over the absences of Cook and Westley with England.
Sacking Scarborough
In each of the last five seasons, the team claiming the Championship pennant has won at Scarborough. That Essex did so inside two days, having run through the 2014 and 2015 champions for 113 and 150, was the sort of shock to send ripples all the way to Clacton. Chris Silverwood, Essex's Yorkshireman head coach, had wanted his team to "make their presence felt" in Division One, where they had never previously survived for more than a season - and where better to do so than English cricket's heartlands? Mohammad Amir swung out ten wickets, ten Doeschate scored tough runs and Essex claimed their fourth win in a row - as many as their closest rivals, Lancashire, have managed all summer. The scent of history was in the seaside air.

Alan Gardner is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick