“The guys were a bit shell-shocked,” Ryan ten Doeschate admits as he recalls Essex’s challenging first taste of Division One cricket this season. Newly promoted, they faced the might of Lancashire and England’s leading Test wicket-taker James Anderson. Seven years had passed since Essex were last in the top tier and, over the course of four sun-boiled days, they received a difficult welcome upon their return. Only the intervention of a six-and-a-half-hour defence from youngster Dan Lawrence prevented defeat.
“At that point we realised this is going to be a lot tougher than we had envisaged,” continues captain ten Doeschate of that opening scare. “But coach Chris Silverwood took a step back and just said, ‘Everyone relax. We’ve had a tough day, they’re a very good bowling side,’ and that set the standard for how we were going to behave and react as a team this year.”
Essex have endured a tumultuous time since the turn of the millennia. Each promotion resulted in relegation the following season. In recent years, a reoccurring theme of nearly men enveloped them, having come close to securing passage to Division One on a handful of occasions only to stumble with it in sight. Similar final-hurdle falls in white-ball cricket did little to dispel the tag.
This year was going to be different, though. “We wanted to be a presence in the Division,” ten Doeschate says. “With losing [bowling pair] Graham Napier and David Masters and knowing what the step up would be, we were very wary of setting specific goals. So we really focused on the process of how we could be better than last year.
“We always felt we had the players, although a little bit worried about the depth of the bowling, but obviously the way Ports [Jamie Porter] and Harmy [Simon Harmer] have gone, ably assisted by the other guys, it was a case of managing what we felt were limited resources and I think the team responded brilliantly.”
Harmer, who gave up a possible international career on the spin of a one-year Kolpak contract that turned into three after a mere trio of Championship matches, has proved a revelation for Essex. Currently top of the Division One wicket-takers list with 48 wickets, his attacking tweak complimented by a range of bowling pace, has brought a balance to the team. His fielding and personality have only enhanced that reputation.
Significantly for Essex, it is the exploits of their younger members, in particular Porter with the ball, which sees them in pole position to win the Championship. Few could have expected such success. While youthful elements may not have played a huge part in those previous near-misses, they still carry the knowledge of them.
“Porter has been phenomenal again this season,” ten Doeschate says. “It speaks volumes for how he’s bowled, the control he’s given us and to strike at important times. We don’t have the depth of some other counties so that’s been crucial.”
Silverwood concurs: “Off the back of two 50+ wicket seasons in Division Two, people always question whether they can step up and he’s proved he can.”
One of the other intriguing elements to Essex’s rise concerns Silverwood. Never holding a position of this stature before, he’s quickly progressed in the role and even been linked with replacing England bowling coach Ottis Gibson if he were to leave the national system.
Part of the Essex setup under previous head coach Paul Grayson, Silverwood grew from his initial bowling coach job to be Grayson’s assistant. Self-effacing, nevertheless possessing 14-years of first-class playing experience including an England career and Championship title of his own, it is Silverwood’s laid back approach that the players believe has affected them the most.
“He is the calmest man,” ten Doeschate says fondly. “Mags [assistant head coach Anthony McGrath] as well. In the changing room at Scarborough against Yorkshire, we were losing wickets when we should’ve pushed the game ahead and I said something to Silvers, it was just me and him, and he was like, ‘mate, don’t worry. Just chill, everything is going to be fine’. And I replied, ‘Silvers, I love you man’.
“There’s no fear. There’s no dressing downs, everything is done in a very constructive way. So apart from his knowledge that is his biggest trait as a coach, his calmness and the ability to keep his nerve.”
Yet how hard was it for Silverwood taking over the reigns after working at Essex through those arid times? “Having been around was good. The players already knew me, knew what I expect of them.
“There’s one thing I use with all my squads. It’s called ‘Above the line’ behaviour. You have a good attitude every day, turn up and try your best so you have to put in the effort, and then you respect your environment and the people around you – not just the squad that’s everyone in the club – and if you do that everyday you’ve got a great chance of succeeding. Basically I’m asking you to be a good bloke.”
The pressing question remains whether Essex are able to maintain the form that has seen them take a 41-point lead in Division One and lift a Championship trophy that has alluded their grasp for 25 years. Where they may have crumbled previously, when players like Alastair Cook depart for international duties, others have carried the load. Out of the 12 Championship centuries the team have scored in 2017, eight different players have raised their bat.
They host Somerset in Chelmsford on Monday, in a replay of the fixture that kick-started Essex’s season, with many contesting it’s a matter of when not if they wrap up the title. Despite bashing calculator buttons and working out all manner of permutations, ten Doeschate disputes that claim, preferring instead to curb any temptation to let players’ minds wander too far into the future. However testing that may prove.
“The excitement among the boys and the coaching staff is ridiculous, I’d be lying to say we don’t talk about it a lot. But at the same time, there’s a lot of maturity and we’re certainly not taking anything for granted. We’ve just won four games on the bounce and there’s no reason why Lancashire or Hampshire can’t do the same. A big part of the strategy is not getting carried away and just focusing on chipping away at each game and picking up points where you can.”
Essex also welcome bowler Mohammad Amir back - after a flyby fitness test in Pakistan ahead of their home matches with a World XI - to boost their chances of victory. This will be his first red-ball match since taking career-best figures of 10/72 when he wiped out Yorkshire and wrapped up a two-day win. Essex will be hoping for a repeat.
“We’ve been very fortunate with our two overseas. Neil Wagner gave us something different. He has the heart of a lion. He ran in all day for us, showed a lot of aggression and helped the other bowlers out at that early stage of the season. Then having Mo at the end now, he’s only really won us one game but he’s spent a lot of time with the bowlers, sharing ideas and he’s been a great team man, which is a big credit to him.”
Silverwood is similarly thrilled with how ten Doeschate has captained Essex. “He’s very good with people and people follow him. He’s quiet at times but very thoughtful. He’s a bright lad, who can lead on the field. His captaincy around the Championship has been inspirational and you can see how much he likes being out there with the boys.”
Taking over the role from fellow Essex stalwart James Foster at the beginning of last season, ten Doeschate then took on the captaincy duties across all formats going into this summer. For him, becoming a Championship winner would be the crowning moment of his career. To do so with Essex, in his 15th season with the club, would mean even more.
“Not to be too sentimental but Essex is where my heart is. I can never repay them for the chances they gave me and particularly in the first few years when I didn’t do so well. How they kept me on is quite beyond me. But, I guess, in cricket terms, it’s my everything. To go through this journey and hopefully win something will go some way to repaying that.”