It is strange to be heralding 2017 as potentially the breakthrough season for Tom Westley. It is, after all, a decade since the right-handed run-accumulator made his first-class debut and he has been a consistent mainstay of Essex’s batting for many of the following years. However, with Essex promoted to Division One of the Specsavers County Championship, and barring a personal loss of form of unimaginable proportions, his Test match credentials will finally be laid out for all to see.
Westley has done all that has been asked of him: more than 2,000 runs across all three formats last season; just shy of 400 runs at a tad under 50 each time he went to the wicket for England Lions in Sri Lanka this winter; and about to play in the top division that is key to unlocking the England selection door.
At 28, therefore, this is as big a season for Westley as anyone in the Essex camp. It really does look like now or never in terms of international recognition; Westley, though, will just get his head down and find the gaps in the arc between mid-on and wide mid-off to make his case unassailable.
“I feel like I am coming into my best years as a batsman and a professional cricketer. I think my best years are ahead of me. I’m almost at my peak and I’d like to think I’ve still got a few years left in me," Westley says.
“The ‘up-and-coming tag’ has gone. Now I want to be an established county cricketer. I’m working towards that – and then obviously there’s England. For me, at my age, I think it is down to sheer weight of runs. If I score 1,400-1,500 runs, like [Durham’s] Keaton Jennings did last year, then you make it difficult for the selectors to ignore you. I can’t rely on ‘Oh, he’s got ability, let’s chuck him in’. That won’t work at my age. If I score as many runs as I can then at least I’m throwing my name in the hat for some form of England recognition, maybe in the summer.
“Every time I go out I want to score the biggest amount. You want your name in the headlines. But I have learnt not to get too caught up in that. When you dwell desperately on trying to score hundreds, two hundreds, or desperately wanting to be the person to stand out, it detracts from the simple things that got you where you are.”
If Westley continues where he left off last summer, and on the sub-continent, then it will be to Essex’s benefit, too. The batting line-up was strengthened at the tail-end of last season when Varun Chopra and Adam Wheater returned home after spells at Warwickshire and Hampshire. With Alastair Cook available for large swathes of the Championship campaign, it is no wonder Westley says: “I think there are going to be a few headaches in regard to selection.
“We’ve signed two fantastic batters in Chopra and Wheater. Then you’ve got the likes of Nick Browne, Dan Lawrence, ten Doeschate – someone is going to miss out at some stage, especially when Cookie is back. There is real strength and depth there. Fortunately for me I don’t have to get too … actually, it might be me missing out!”
It might be at times that Westley has to move down from his regular spot at No3. “It is something that’s been spoken about,” he admits. “There could be the option of batting at No4. It’s going to be interesting.”
The retirements of seamers David Masters and Graham Napier have blown huge holes in the bowling attack that the signings of the New Zealand pace bowler Neil Wagner and South African kolpak Simon Harmer – with the Pakistani Mohammad Amir replacing Wagner for the second half of the season – should go some way to plugging.
Westley says: “On paper the signing of Wagner is brilliant for the club. He’s got experience, something a bit different, a left-armer, and a fairly aggressive bowler – someone you want bowling for you rather than against you.”
Off-breaker bowler Harmer will be the front-line spinner that is essential in Division One. “We’ve identified how important spin is going to be by bringing him in,” says Westley. “Dan Lawrence and I are fundamentally part-time off-spinners, but I think we might get a few more overs in, say, a second innings if the surface is turning. I haven’t bowled a huge amount in recent years, and then when I have I haven’t bowled as well as I know I could have – because I haven’t bowled enough. But if Harmer strengthens the squad, and I bowl less, then that is irrelevant to me as long as we are a better team.”
With all-rounder Ryan ten Doeschate now captain in all formats after Ravi Bopara stood down as one-day skipper, Essex will be embarking on only their third season in Division One in the 18 years of a two-tier Championship. Westley was 21 and still at university when Essex had their last one-season stay in 2010. They won just two of 16 games and, in cricketing parlance, didn’t trouble the scorers.
Westley says: “I think sometimes in the past our goal was to stay up, and if you set goals like that, with a negative in it, then you are probably not going to achieve much. I do believe what’s been successful at Essex in recent years is we haven’t put targets in place that are set in stone. We purely take each game as it comes and try our best to win that game.
“Where will we finish? Who knows? We’re an ambitious club and we want to play Division One cricket. So, yes, our priority is to remain in Division One. I think as long as we get runs on the board we give ourselves the best chance to win games. Then we’ll see where that takes us.”