Can Essex retain the County Championship trophy?

Alastair Cook Essex

The 2017 county season was the stuff of fairy tales for Essex. Given its profile, its budget, its history and the undoubted talent at its disposal, this is a team that has consistently underachieved since the English county scene split into two divisions.

When Essex at last achieved promotion to the top flight, many assumed they would be straight back down the following year. Even the Essex faithful acknowledged that the objective was to stay up, and a mid-table performance would have been seen as a success. Nobody expected them to win it, but from the first day of the first match, the team looked assured, and outplayed all opposition.

Looking to 2018

With the new season underway, there is an air of cautious optimism around the county ground at Chelmsford. For those who are less partisan, the air is simply one of caution – last year, there were those who were accused of throwing their money away when they logged on to sites like Ladbrokes casino to back Essex at long odds. They had the last laugh, and the bookmakers are not going to be bitten again. As Essex prepared for their first game, their new head coach Anthony McGrath told local reporters “This time last year, a lot of pundits were saying we would go down.” What a difference a year makes – even at this early stage, Essex are favourites to retain the trophy at 3/1.

The Essex Boys have it all to do

Of course, in 2017, the lack of expectation meant Essex could play with freedom and without pressure. Coming into a season as the favourites makes 2018 a whole new proposition. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Essex have the firepower to beat anyone, despite Alastair Cook being unavailable for the opening matches.

In Tom Westley, Ravi Bopara and Ryan TenDoeschate, Essex have three experienced batsmen with international credentials behind them, while Nick Browne and Dan Lawrence are two young talents who seem certain to receive an international call up sooner or later.

The seam bowling is spearheaded by Jamie Porter, another youngster who could surely do a job for England – already he is being discussed as an heir apparent for James Anderson’s sizeable boots. And with Australian paceman Peter Siddle at the other end, it is the ideal blend of youth and experience.

Who can spoil the party?

The other question on everyone’s lips is whether another county can “do an Essex” and take the Division One establishment by surprise? This year’s new arrivals from Division Two are Nottinghamshire and Worcestershire.

Both have gone through transitions over the winter that will not have put them in ideal stead for the challenge ahead. Worcestershire parted company with head coach Steve Rhodes under unfortunate circumstances, while Nottinghamshire are having to get used to life without the services of their long-serving captain and wicketkeeper Chris Read.

Of the two, Nottinghamshire seem the more capable, while Worcestershire have already lost the first two games of the campaign and have slumped to 50/1 with the bookmakers. But it is a long season, and if last year taught us anything, it is that fairy tales do happen.