Thursday, April 5, 2012

County Cricket: Essex's 2012 Season Preview

Dust off the Playfair, dig out your sun cream (or woolly hat and scarves at the moment), find that cushion to make your sitting on the benches a far more comfortable experience and get a flask of tea ready. County cricket's back and it begins on Thursday 5th April.

With the pre-season done and the press day out of the way, I thought I'd give a season preview for the county that I support before it all kicks off. I'll probably look back at this in September and laugh.

As stated in a previous post, Essex's 2011 was one of, ultimately, mediocrity and disappointment. With investment in the squad, Essex will be hoping 2012 is a more successful one and, in terms of actions off the field, a less controversial one. So, in light of all this, here are my key players, players to watch out for and my hopes and expectations for the forthcoming season.

Key Players:

David Masters

It would be foolish to expect a repeat of his superb 2011 season, but Masters has shown himself to be a reliable and important spearhead of the Essex attack, especially in the first-class format of the game. He took 93 wickets last season, including a career best 8-10 against Leicestershire at Southend, and has started the new season terrorising the students who play for Cambridge MCCU.

He is the perfect team player. Whilst he's not got searing pace,  he'll run in all day for you and bowl on a nagging, accurate line and length with incredible economic figures. Foster stated in an interview with BBC Look East that Masters was the perfect bowler to keep to, and this shows because despite being a quick bowler, Foster regularly comes up to the stumps when he's bowling.

Every team needs a carthorse to do some of the hard work. Masters is the ideal one for Essex.

Alviro Petersen

His time here for the first half of the season will be crucial. With Ryan ten Doeschate and Owais Shah being a part of the Indian Premier League, and Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara on England duty, Essex will be relying on Alviro Petersen to bulk up the vulnerable young top order and help Essex have a good start to the season.

His form coming into the county season is mixed, but he will surely be buoyed by the 156 he got against the New Zealanders in the final Test at Wellington. He will need time to adapt to English conditions, but having arrived in Chelmsford on Tuesday, he's already asked where Nando's is, so his off the field settling in seems to be going well. The management staff will hope that he has a better time of it in Essex than his fellow countryman Lonwabo Tsotsobe.

Glamorgan were aggrieved with Petersen's decision to join Essex. He was initially going to play for them as a Kolpak player and give up international cricket, but having returned to the international set up, he wants to pursue his South African career. So instead of returning to Glamorgan, he's ended up at Chelmsford. It's going to make the match at the beginning of next month very interesting indeed.

James Foster

Heading into his second full season as captain after the resignation of Mark Pettini in a tricky 2010, Foster will hope that 2012 is a more successful one, both for himself as captain and as a player. To me, he is still one of the best glovemen in the country. He has quick reflexes and regularly pulls off excellent stumpings/catches.

Last season, there were issues with his, and the club's, on field behaviour and this led to a hefty fine. Foster himself was banned for two matches in the Twenty20 tournament after giving the umpires verbals for a decision he deemed poor in a match against Surrey. It was a frustrating tournament for everyone. On paper, Essex had a good side, but they just could not perform.

2011 was Foster's benefit year, so with that now out of the way, Foster will be able to focus more on the game rather than what's going on off field. He has got more experience of captaining now and will hope that this experience will make his task of juggling keeping, captaincy and lower order batting easier.

Graham Napier

It's been four years since Napier made headlines with his 152* against Sussex in the 2008 Twenty20 tournament, but 2012 marks a special year for Napier. 2012 has been named as his benefit year, so all eyes will be on him for different reasons. Injured for the majority of the 2010 season with a stress fracture in his back, Napier returned to the Essex team and again made headlines by hitting 16 sixes against Surrey in a County Championship match. He took 28 wickets at 24.64 in the County Championship last season and remains a big part of Essex's limited overs attack (despite only taking 12 wickets in the CB40 and 5 in the Twenty20).

Over the winter he was set to play for Central Districts in New Zealand's domestic Twenty20 tournament, the HRV Cup, but his winter was cut short early by an elbow injury. However, in the match between Essex and Cambridge MCCU, he was bowling with pace and managed to pick up 3 wickets.

His ability to hit big will be crucial in the limited overs cricket, but having already scored a century off 48 deliveries in the aforementioned Cambridge match, his lower order big hitting is just as useful in the four day format of the game.

Tim Phillips

Given the fast bowling pot that Essex have at the moment, it's easy to overlook the slower bowlers of the squad. However, Phillips will surely have something to say this season. He was a valuable resource in Essex's poor Twenty20 campaign. He was, in fact, the leading wicket taker in the country with 26 wickets at 13.23 in the 15 matches he played. In 2010 he played 16 matches for the county, picking up only 9 at 35.66. In the CB40, he was joint leading wicket taker for the county, taking 17 wickets at 22.35. 

Drought conditions in the south east mean that Chelmsford may well become a dust bowl over the summer. With Danish Kaneria now far away from the county, which is very much for the best, Phillips will hope that he can continue to noticeably improve and potentially become a potent part of Essex's 4-day attack.

Players to watch out for:

Reece Topley

Last year, Topley had to wear the junior version of the CB40 shirt because he was under-age. A tall, left arm medium-fast bowler, with the ability to swing the ball, Topley burst onto the scene for Essex against Kent back in April 2011. He took 7 wickets on debut and finished second in the list of leading wicket takers for Essex last season, with 34 wickets at an average of 23.55.

His name's been known since 2009 when he was clobbered on the side of the head by Kevin Pietersen at Loughborough. He, along with Ben Foakes, is currently in Australia with the England Under-19s for a Quadrangular Series involving Australia, New Zealand and India. When he returns to England, don't be surprised to see the 18 year old straight back into the Essex attack because 2012 may well be a big year for the Ipswich born Topley.

Tymal Mills

The rise of Tymal Mills is one that should warm the hardest of hearts. Having only taken up cricket when he was 14, Mills spent his winter rubbing elbows with the likes of Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow and Stuart Meaker in South Africa and Bangladesh with the England Performance Programme/England Lions squad. Not bad for someone who was playing club cricket on the village greens of Suffolk back in May.

He made his debut for Essex against the Sri Lankans in June 2011 and took the wicket of Paranavitina in the first innings. He finished the first class season with 7 wickets in the 4 matches he played and picked up 1 wicket against Somerset in the only CB40 match he played. He is a quick bowler. His accuracy is a bit off and he can be expensive, but it will come with more games that he plays. He, like Topley, is certainly one to watch out for in the coming season.

Adam Wheater

Last season marked some astonishing performances from the 22 year old, as he managed to get Essex out of tricky situations, most notably against Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire. He was named in the Potential England Performance Programme squad over the winter and also played first class cricket in Zimbabwe for Matabeleland Tuskers. He scored 642 runs in 11 innings at an average of 71.33, scoring a century and three half-centuries in the process. He also gained valuable wicketkeeping experience, something that it is difficult to get at Essex with James Foster behind the stumps.

Last year Wheater was the second highest run scorer for the county, scoring 804 at 42.31. If he can replicate this form this season, then it may well be a very good one for the youngster.

Tom Craddock

If not for his ballerina-esque bowling action, it's worth paying attention to Craddock. Plucked from the obscurity of the Unicorns CB40 side, Tom Craddock enjoyed a decent start to his Essex career. He played 8 first-class matches and picked up 22 wickets, double that of Tim Phillips.

Having impressed on trial, Craddock has signed a two year deal with the club. He will hope that he can build on his success in 2011 and become a big part of both the first-class and limited overs attack.

Pre-season antics:

Rather than spending money heading to warmer climes, Essex decided to stay at home for pre-season. They had three warm-up matches and then a university/first-class match against Cambridge MCCU and made use of a tent on the outfield to have outdoor nets.

The Essex players have also been playing cricket across the world, with Zimbabwe seemingly being a popular destination. Like said in the introduction, Essex have invested in the squad. Charl Willoughby has joined from Somerset, Greg Smith from Derbyshire, Alviro Petersen comes in as overseas player and Peter Siddle has been signed up for the Twenty20 tournament. There are rumours of Brendan Taylor also joining for the Twenty20, but Essex have said that this talk is 'premature'.

But the most notable, and heartbreaking, thing that happened in the pre-season is what took place at the Old Bailey back in January this year. The shadow of Mervyn Westfield's imprisonment for spot-fixing charges hangs over the club, with the court (and cricketing world) accusing the current players of sticking their heads in the sand over the entire issue and taking the wrong methods in going about reporting the corruption. When the sentence was given, the Twitterati descended on the Essex Twitter feed, because they decided that it would be the perfect day to advertise a job opportunity/the new kit coming in.

I don't really know what people were expecting from a Twitter feed run by someone probably sat in the portacabin next to the pavilion and who can only write whatever they're provided with, but it just goes to show the anger that was, and perhaps still is, directed at the club. It has taken Essex around two months to release any public statement about the spot-fixing trial, and that was just to say that the players wouldn't be talking about it.

There are questions still to be answered and as an Essex fan, but ultimately a cricket fan, I am of course disappointed with the response. But my major issue is with that of Kaneria, and it was at the time. If he was being investigated by the police, why was he still allowed to be at the club? If what the court says is true, that he "joked" about money and cricket in front of more experienced players, then how was this overlooked? With this incident happening in 2009, to me (with Essex tinted glasses, I'm sorry) it feels like an enormous sense of naivety. The Pakistani spot-fixing trial has set the precedent and corruption cannot be tolerated.

It's not a time to try and score points off the club and have little digs at it, because, frankly, I've always thought the cricketing world was more mature than that. Every club should learn from this. Every club should protect their players, but especially the youngsters, from the lure of an easy few quid. When the news broke about this, I nearly cried in the library and then went to a lecture, sat slumped in an Essex hoody. I felt a mixture of emotions, ranging from being ashamed to angry and, most of all, distraught. Spot-fixing is a serious issue and it has once again claimed a youngster trying to make a cricketing career. And that, is the biggest tragedy of all.

What could happen:

So, what can be expected this year? Well, I'm a terrible Mystic Meg, so I'm not going to bring out a crystal ball or anything like that. However, I will say that there feels like there's a sense of optimism round the club. Even I feel optimistic, which is a strange and foreign feeling to me. I'm even taking sunglasses down today despite the Arctic conditions.

The signing of Peter Siddle in the Twenty20 should draw in the crowds. Whilst he's not exactly the best Twenty20 player, a fired up Siddle running in from the Hayes Close/River End in front of a packed out Chelmsford crowd should get everyone rocking. Essex will hope that, like Tim Southee last year, he can add a bit of fireworks to the batting. Let's just hope they decide not to open the batting with him.

The CB40 campaign last year was ruined by the weather and the south west, mainly Somerset. This year, Essex won't be playing the habitual runners up in the group stages, but will instead have some tough fixtures against Twenty20 champions Leicestershire, the Netherlands (who claimed a few upsets last year), trips to the south west, Middlesex and Lancashire. Essex are known for being a decent one day outfit and have had some success in recent years in this limited overs format.

As stated many times, the 2011 season was an incredibly disappointing. But with the new arrivals at Chelmsford and a hotbed of youngsters, Essex will be hoping that things will click on the field and they can regain promotion to Division 1 and do well in the limited overs tournaments. Bring on the county season 2012.

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