By finishing Warwickshire off quite so promptly, Essex were left with a few agonising hours to kill before their first Championship title in a quarter of century is expected to be confirmed. “I want to go home and chill out,” Ryan ten Doeschate, the captain, said. “But some of the youngsters are eyeing two days in Birmingham.” The cheering from the Edgbaston dressing room, rowdier with every wicket for Somerset’s spinners, hinted that the youngsters had won. They were all Cidermen for the day, in more ways than one.
Essex have dominated Division One on their first season back after six summers away, and their seventh title ever (and first without Graham Gooch) should be confirmed in Taunton on Friday. The County Championship may never see a climax as exciting as 2016’s but thanks to Essex’s excellence, there has barely even been a contest, and it should be done with eight of 56 days to spare. Their win at Edgbaston was their eighth in 12 games (Middlesex won with six in 16 last year), and they are the only unbeaten side in the land.
“Name me a game, I can tell you two players who have won it. Name a player and I’ll give you two games they have won for us,” Ten Doeschate said. It has, as he says, been a triumph of the collective. Jamie Porter and Simon Harmer have bossed the bowling, with more than 60 wickets each, but Essex have eight different centurions. Neil Wagner and Mohammad Amir have shared 38 wickets as overseas pro, while the third seamer’s spot has been a revolving door of young seamers from the local leagues and in the last couple of weeks, Sam has shown that two is not too many Cooks. Speaking of which, they have had the batting depth to cover for the absence of Alastair Cook and Tom Westley.
Ten Doeschate is a man who believes “people make too much of a big deal out of cricket captaincy”. But he is the most resourceful and dynamic skipper on the circuit. In signing Harmer, Essex have the best spinner, too. After winning Division Two barely using spin, this was the most pressing target for Ten Doeschate and the head coach, Chris Silverwood. Providing him with the footmarks carved out by the left-arm seam bowling overseas bowlers has been a masterstroke.
Besides Harmer, the best of the Kolpak signings, Ten Doeschate (the South African Dutch international who has been with the club more than a decade and describes himself as “Essex through and through”), and those overseas bowlers, everyone else is local. It is a side forged in the Essex leagues, but refined elsewhere.
“That is very deliberate,” says Silverwood who, with his assistant Anthony McGrath, won the title as a player with Yorkshire in 2001. “We are passionate about homegrown players coming through. They’re all Essex boys. If you get that, you get longevity, rather than a short-term thing.”
Ten Doeschate is coy about the club’s ambitions at the start of the season, but says he was desperate to dispel among his squad the “myth” of the gap between the divisions, and to land a punch for the smaller counties. By the sixth or seventh game, they believed they could win and started to plan exactly how to do so. “We had that myth in our head at the start,” he says. “I hope we’ve shown that teams coming up don’t have to go down. Another thing that’s big for me is that young players don’t have to move to Test grounds.”
Those early games were an education. Dan Lawrence, who had six Championship tons before 20, had to save an opening draw against Lancashire, then Cook’s excellence saw them chase 255 – the day after 18 wickets fell – at Taunton. They escaped with a draw against Middlesex at Lord’s but, having ridden those early challenges, got on a run of five straight midsummer wins, spearheaded by Harmer, who took 14 wickets in successive matches against Warwickshire and Middlesex.
Essex were promoted in 2016, the toughest season, because just one side came up. But they believe that helped, because by being forced to win the division, they had to learn how to win matches. This has not happened overnight but the upswing has been sharp. It was only in 2015, after all, that they became the first team to lose to Leicestershire in three seasons.
The story of 24-year-old Porter – who has stepped into the haggard old bowling boots vacated by Graham Napier and Dave Masters, who retired last year and deserve at least an assist for this triumph – perhaps illustrates this best. After failing to make the grade as a teenager at Essex or Middlesex, as well as three years as an MCC Young Cricketer, he was working in recruitment in London as England lost the 2013-14 Ashes 5-0; this time, he is in contention to tour.
He had just about given up on a career in the game but after a fine start to the 2014 season for Chingford he got a trial with Essex seconds. “I quit my job after one second-team game which was a bit rogue,” he says with the grin of a man who knows he will never have to go back. “One of the old sales bosses told me there’s always a job there if I need it – I remember thinking I’d look like a right muppet if I asked for my job back by the end of the week! I had enough savings to get me through the summer so I gave it one last go and here we are.”
Talk to any of the movers and shakers, and the subject shifts to legacy, of an era of Porter, Lawrence and Westley. Club legends Brian “Tonker” Taylor and Doug Insole have died during the course of this campaign, while Keith Fletcher and Gooch were vital in the development of many of these players, and remain close to the team. Indeed, a former player is never far away at Chelmsford, a ramshackle ground where Essex are supported loudly and proudly, always with half an eye on history.
“Everyone talks about the Fletcher era, and Gooch,” says Silverwood. “Well, what I’m saying to these guys is I’d love them to be talking about this era in 20 years time.”