Essex and cricket. You could talk for hours. Travel down to Chelmsford and it’s never a dull experience at the Cloudfm County ground; where anticipation, exhilaration and determination are synonymous with heavy hitting and sell-out crowds.
Except Essex and trophies don’t particularly mix together well. In 15 years the Eagles have never once won the Natwest T20 Blast. And the last time the county held an ODI trophy was all the way back in 2006.
So watching them becomes more hope than expectation. Against Hampshire two months ago, sat a few metres behind the boundary, was an experience and a half in itself. With Ravi Bopara nearly salvaging the match late on!
It’s that ‘nearly’ aspect which creates the phrase ‘oh here we go again’. Yet towards the end of last year momentum and eventual pandemonium, set the ground on the bank of the River Chelmer alight, as Essex defied the odds and achieved history.
Foxes or Eagles?
Set your clock back to 2010. New Zealand’s Andre Adams had taken the most wickets for champions Nottinghamshire (he’s now 43). Whilst Mark Ramprakash clocked up the most runs in the division. In style, Essex had just crashed out of County Championship’s Division One after winning a poultry two games out of 16. Something needed to change.
It wouldn’t be a quick fix though. Year in year out Essex failed to catapult themselves back into the promised land. Finishing agonisingly close on numerous occasions.
Then in 2016, in preparation for yet another year in Division Two, Leicester City achieved the impossible and won the Premier League. You can guess what happened next.
Essex hadn’t won the County Championship since 1992, the days when Graham Gooch strolled out onto the crease. But on the 25th anniversary, a newly promoted side aimed to stay up.
Over the weeks that goal altered ever so slightly. Win after win after win. Three consecutive triumphs by an innings. Jamie Porter and Simon Harmer caused mayhem across the country with their fluid bowling flexibility on pitches so dry they made the Sahara Desert look like a tropical oasis.
Played 14. Won 10. Lost 0. A stat for the ages. The favourites to be relegated had only gone and won the whole thing. It summed up Essex really. A positive attitude combined with an inspirational aptitude that caught cricket fans by surprise.
Hitting cameras but not boundaries
To anyone who thought that Essex’s County Championship victory would change the pattern of drought within the short format of the game hadn’t regularly viewed Essex in the short format of the game.
Inconsistency has plagued the Eagles. So it’s unfortunately not a surprise that Essex find themselves second bottom of the T20 Blast South League. The exact position where they finished last year.
To sum up the situation (and it’s pretty depressing) the highlight of the year came from former Kent all-rounder Matt Coles, who achieved a pretty mean feat in forcing a cameraman to take evasive action against, ironically, Kent.
The concept of Edgbaston and Finals Day continues to be a pipe dream but drama and desire go hand in hand when watching Essex.
Ooooh Ravi Bopara
To give you an idea of the extensive extravaganza that you find at the Cloudfm County Ground just listen to the stereo-system when Ravi Bopara is at the crease.
With Essex, perhaps unsurprisingly, often leaving chases late, subsequently springing a surprise in the last few moments, it is Bopara who leads the charge from sixth.
There is something special about matches under the lights in a 6,500 capacity ground, where the main entrance is located in a narrow alleyway underneath one of Chelmsford’s biggest bypasses.
Suits flock out from their offices, while families from all over the county and local school cricket sides join together to listen to Seven White Stripes’ version of ‘Ravi Bopara’.
No more need for motivation than that. Especially when the crowd get on the opposition’s back.
Sledging but schooled
It wasn’t Ian Botham and Rodney Marsh sharing verbals regarding their wife and kids but Colin Munro received some unwanted advice towards the end of Essex’s match with Hampshire.
Ironically these sarcastic words of encouragement came from a kid screaming, ‘Who do you think you are?’ and ‘Oi Munro, the ball’s over there.’
Unfortunately for the kid, Munro soon saw the ball ricochet off Neil Wagner’s bat into the calm hands of England international Liam Dawson, causing Munro to turn back to the crease with his finger stuck to his lips.
The kid didn’t respond.
Munro’s last laugh
To provide a metaphor for the entertainment at Essex games we have to look at the final over of the Eagles battle against Hampshire.
And of course it includes both Bopara and Munro.
Somehow, somehow Bopara guided his side from 48 required off 17 to 7 from five. But a startling over from Ryan Stevenson set the game alight in its final moments.
The wait between every ball now felt like its own generation. With sponsors’ tops whisked into the crowd at most opportunities, there was a sense of those on the field became annoyed at the loudspeakers and just wanted to get on with it.
James Vince, Hampshire’s captain, with five fielders outside the circle still had his work cut out. When Bopara smashed one out of the stadium towards the proximity of a kitchen window behind the stand the crowd leapt off their seats. The owner of the house probably didn’t…
7 off 5 and a single. 6 off 4. Wagner lofts one high. Caught. Munro silences kid in the crowd for good. Next ball. Dot. 6 off 2.
But Bopara is at the crease. The ball’s in the slot and he doesn’t miss that chance, catapulting it through the off-side for four.
Now two off the last ball. Short ball from Ryan Stevenson but Bopara fails to middle it and races for two as the ball trickles into a gap leg-side.
A draw is simply no good. Gets the first run but the second will be tight and indeed it is. The desperate dive isn’t enough and a game which has lasted just short of three hours is decided by less than a metre. Bopara’s stretch in vain as Lewis McManus behind the stumps runs him out. Fielder? Munro.
So a thrilling final over and Essex still didn’t win. It’s all part of following the Eagles in the end.