After a remarkable unbeaten season brought Essex an unlikely first County Championship title since a dominant spell in the 1980s and early ’90s, Nick Friend spoke to former Essex wicketkeeper Neil Burns about the similarities between this year’s success and that of the previous great Essex sides.
Without County Championship silverware for 25 years and on the back of the tightest three-way title fight in recent memory, the Essex faithful could have been forgiven for approaching their return to Division One with some trepidation.
After all, club linchpins David Masters and Graham Napier had retired with neither obviously replaced. However, Adam Wheater and Varun Chopra had both returned to the county where they had begun their careers. The effect was, as former Essex wicketkeeper Neil Burns explains, a united club made up of local talent.
Burns, who was on the club’s playing staff as deputy wicket-keeper during Essex’s glory years of the 1980s before leaving for Somerset, was part of County Championship winning squads in 1983, 1984 and 1986, as well as helping the club secure five one-day trophies.
As a Chelmsford-born boy who had watched his heroes secure their first ever trophy in the 1979 B&H Cup before playing alongside former England captains Graham Gooch and Keith Fletcher, he highlights how the county’s excellent use of its catchment area has played a significant role in the success of both sides.
“The ‘80s team was very established and was made up of, primarily, local cricketers. The only outsiders would have been Brian Hardie who came down from Scotland and then the overseas players – Allan Border in 1986, Ken McEwan and Norbert Phillip , the West Indian opening bowler.
“The other big factor was the emergence of a couple of really good young batsmen: Paul Prichard and future test players Nasser Hussain, John Stephenson and Nick Knight. The success could be sustained.
“I think Essex have that at the moment as well – Dan Lawrence has come in and done what Paul Prichard did. He’s not just shown that he’s good enough to be selected. He’s come in and made a strong initial impact despite only being a teenager.”
However, it is not just with the bat where Burns sees a similarity to previous great Essex teams. He attributes much of the previous era’s success to the emergence of local fast bowlers, all of whom were available for long stretches of the season in an epoch well before the notion of central contracts had ever been discussed.
“The thing that made the big difference to the team in the ‘80s was the emergence of homegrown seamers in Neil Foster and Derek Pringle, who were of international quality.
“But the strength from the core of the team came from Ray East and David Acfield – two very experienced spin bowlers, John Lever – an outstanding opening bowler, Keith Fletcher – a brilliant captain, Stuart Turner – the veteran seam bowling all-rounder and hard-nosed tough pro, Brian Hardie – great team man, gutsy batsman, and brilliant short-leg fieldsman, then on top of that you had Graham Gooch who was emerging as a genuine superstar as an international batsman. Add the enthusiasm and skill of ‘keeper David East into the mix, and the 1980’s team was a perfect blend of emerging international talent and richly-experienced senior professionals.”
Alastair Cook played the role of Gooch in this 2017 remake of the 1980s classic, providing runs by the bucket-load in the first half of the season. Yet, it was in the bowling department once again where Burns pinpoints the major gamechanger for this year’s squad.
Having lost a combined 1,172 wickets through the retirements of David Masters and Graham Napier, questions were asked of where the wickets would come from. The answer, in the end, was simple. Seemingly from nowhere, Jamie Porter burst onto the scene, taking 75 wickets in just fourteen games.
“Jamie Porter was a key player in the team last year so, effectively, he had to do the work of two others [once Napier and Masters retired],” Burns explains.
“His body has stood up to the work and his quality has been high and consistent throughout. So, there is so much to admire about Jamie’s cricket. And when one considers he was working in an office four years ago after a few seasons on trial at both Essex and Middlesex as a youngster, it is a great story to inspire other players who don’t enjoy a golden period as a teenager.
“Then, of course, Sam Cook and Aaron Beard, both local lads from my old club Chelmsford CC, came in and took wickets when they were needed. At the end of the season, Sam produced some exceptional bowling performances and looked like he’s been playing for three years rather than three weeks. That says a lot about the identifying and nurturing of young talent by the long-serving coaches Barry Hyam and John Childs.”
Overall, 118 of the 247 wickets taken by Essex all season were taken by ‘homegrown’ Essex cricketers – a remarkable number in a Championship-winning side.
Burns, too, reserves special praise for the club’s use of the Kolpak and overseas system, with the excellent Simon Harmer, New Zealand’s Neil Wagner and Pakistan left-armer Mohammad Amir all playing key roles with the ball alongside the county’s young local prospects.
“I think the recruitment of an overseas bowler was wise. Wagner is a really good pro so has fitted in really well, bowled lots of overs and was very committed to the team. I think Amir’s signing was really helpful because he’s highly skilful and touching world class. When you add that into a team that’s already taking shape, it really is the cherry on the cake.”
In Harmer, who turned his back on a possible international career with South Africa to commit to Essex, there marks a difference from the previous title-winning sides, who relied on a variety of slow-bowling duos.
“Essex’s initial success came through the partnership of East and Acfield. Then it became Acfield and Childs. Then it became Childs and Miller. Then it became Childs and Such. The current side has only really played with one main spin bowler.”
However, one spinner is all Essex have needed, with Harmer claiming 72 wickets in his debut season, including consecutive 14-wicket matches against Warwickshire and Middlesex.
At times, as Burns highlights, Harmer and Porter’s magic has been required. Essex collected just 28 batting points all season – as many as Middlesex who suffered relegation.
“What has been remarkable about their cricket this year has been how poorly they’ve batted in the first innings in some fixtures and still won those matches. Early season, when they’d have probably doubted their own capability because they hadn’t been in the first division for a decade and each time they’d come up they’d been relegated, they got bowled out for 170 in the first game against Lancashire. They were being smashed in the game until Lawrence hit a ton to save the game.”
A similar theme followed. They drew at Middlesex after finishing the first innings 212 runs behind, having already won at Taunton after being bowled out for 129 at the first time of asking. Yet, although they could have lost all of their opening three games, the Eagles came through unscathed, paving the way for an astonishing unbeaten season – crucial to which, Burns says, was the role played by captain Ryan ten Doeschate.
“The role of the captain is a similarity to past successes too. Keith Fletcher had played his best cricket for England by the time Essex became champions, and his primary focus was Essex’s ambition to become winners. And Ryan ten Doeschate has experienced international cricket with Holland and played in the t20 global franchises around the world but is now solely focused on Essex. The push for them is through captaincy so that they’re interested in the team performing and actually performing well as a captain and then producing performances individually to either help pull the team out of trouble, or push on selflessly, with risk-taking aggression in pursuit of an increasingly dominant position for the team.
“I think it really helps when you have a captain who’s focused on that as opposed to someone who’s currently a star player with England, or one who is trying to become an England captain or who’s trying to get into the England team through sheer weight of individual performance.
“I think Ryan is very committed to the club, in the way Fletch was (and still is behind the scenes) and really values the career opportunities the club has given him. I look at Middlesex who brought James Franklin over from New Zealand, who’s at the back end of his career as a direct contrast. I’m sure Middlesex’s current captain doesn’t know as much about club cricket and junior cricket in north London as Ryan does about all aspects of cricket in Essex, east London and East Anglia.
“I look at Essex with Ryan, Keith Fletcher and Graham Gooch as Championship-winning captains and they have a similar backstory in that they’ve known the hard years, they know lots of people, and people know them so there’s a deeper connection. They know and understand what the team and the club mean to the people.”
The county’s use of social media has also sought to reaffirm this obvious commitment to the club’s supporters and the local area. Team sheets were published on Twitter, with each player listed alongside his amateur club side, further connecting the county to local clubs. Alastair Cook’s Maldon CC, Jamie Porter and Dan Lawrence of Chingford CC, James Foster of Wanstead, Paul Walter from Billericay CC, Sam Cook and Aaron Beard of Chelmsford CC and Ravi Bopara from Hainault & Clayhall CC– all amateur organisations run predominantly by volunteers. Yet through one tweet, there was unity. It was a gesture totally in line with the ethos that Burns sees both in the current structure and that of the period of Essex’s history he was associated with.
“It’s been a real team effort brought about by the culture enabled by a forward-thinking Chairman, a progressive and diligent CEO, an ambitious Cricket Chairman with significant playing experience, and a wise captain. I think that’s very similar to how the club was in my formative years as a professional. There was very much a family feel to the club, it was very tightly run, and the team’s performance as a collective was the most important thing.
“If I look at the Essex performance in its entirety this season, you’d have to say that different individuals have stepped forward at key times. But apart from Jamie Porter, I don’t think there’s a local Essex cricketer who’s had a truly outstanding season as an individual, but they have all been superb team players.
“As a squad, they’ve been outstanding.”
Featured photograph: Nick Wood | Unshaken Photography