When Essex’s coach rolled into Chelmsford, to be greeted by a small but fervent crowd of staff and supporters, the newly crowned County Champions were not quite at full quota. One or two, including Alastair Cook, had made their own way home, while a few others had stayed on in Birmingham – where Essex claimed the victory that secured the title – to celebrate a success that few beyond confines of the club thought likely six months ago.
There were pre-emptive drinks at Edgbaston, followed by a night out for some members of the squad – though the captain, Ryan ten Doeschate, was in bed by 9.45pm with a Lemsip for a nightcap – as they awaited the result from Taunton, which duly followed on Friday, confirming Essex could no longer be caught by Lancashire. When that moment came, on the motorway heading back from the Midlands, one or two hangovers may have suddenly eased.
At the county ground, there were cheers and champagne once the players had disembarked, blinking into the sunlight of a world where Essex are Division One winners. Chris Silverwood, Essex’s head coach, had challenged them at the start of the season to go out and upset the established order and, with eight wins out of 12, they have embodied that ambition. “One team, one dream,” as it says on the side of the bus.
“It was a weird sensation knowing it was done yesterday,” ten Doeschate said. “The bus was a little subdued today with some of the lads staying up in Birmingham but coming here and seeing guys like Keith Fletcher and the staff coming to receive us is what it’s all about. It will take a few days to realise the scale of what we’ve achieved.
“It’s without doubt the proudest moment of my career and you look at someone like James Foster who’s been here even longer. This makes up for all the years of struggle and all the years of nearly-beens.
“The numbers tell a story and Jamie Porter and Simon Harmer deserve so much credit for the way they’ve run through teams and I also think the amount of match-winners we’ve had is different to other years. On a more tangible level Chris Silverwood has brought a far more relaxed environment and has squeezed every inch out of the squad we’ve had. That’s probably the reason why we’ve won so many games.”
While many supposed Essex would be in a fight to avoid relegation, as had been their fate on three previous trips up to Division One, there was much greater confidence among the team management – to the extent that written in the three-year plan, among short-term goals, was “win Division One”. To do it in the season after being promoted is about as short-term as you can get.
Silverwood’s calm, cheery presence has been at the heart of two hugely successful years in Championship cricket, something the chief executive, Derek Bowden, set down as their main goal when looking to appoint Paul Grayson’s successor in 2015. Such has been his transformative effect at a club which had been treading water for several years that Silverwood is now a candidate to step up to international level with England.
Having stopped for every request from fans – including a few impromptu hugs – and wiped the fizz from his hair, Silverwood was keen to divert the credit to his players. “The result we’ve got is borne of all the hard work we’ve put in,” he said. “You do hope, at the start of every campaign, you want to win trophies. We start with the philosophy of every game’s a must-win game and we wanted to make our presence felt. It keeps you in the present, keeps your feet on the floor.
“The guys have been absolutely fantastic, they’ve believed in the plan, believed in each other. As a team they’ve grown, you could see the confidence growing all season. Any given point, people have put their hands up. It’s not the same few, yes, we’ve had two run-away wicket-takers in Ports and Harmer but we’ve also had 12 centuries by eight different people, so it just shows everybody has put their hand up.”
This has been a success that will be celebrated beyond the county borders, from the urban outskirts of London right across the vast swathe of East Anglia, from where Essex draw their talent. Glasses will be raised at clubs such as Maldon, where Cook started out, and in Tom Westley’s part of Cambridge; at Wanstead & Snaresbrook and Ilford and South Woodford, where the likes of Foster, the long-serving wicketkeeper, Varun Chopra and Nick Browne learned the game.
So closely bound is the Essex first-team squad that, as was noted in the Times earlier this week, four of them were born in the same maternity ward in Whipps Cross, including Porter, the leading wicket-taker in Division One and, perhaps, another homegrown England prospect.
Keith Fletcher, who masterminded Essex’s success during the late 1970s and ’80s as they started out on a run of six titles in 13 years, wore a crinkled smile as he greeted the current lot, while ten Doeschate was awaiting a phone call from Graham Gooch. Both Fletcher and Gooch sit on the cricket committee (which is now an advisory body), along with Ronnie Irani, David Acfield and Bowden. Essex is a club that sets much store by its history and tradition and the only sadness on a day of joy was that the likes of Brian “Tonker” Taylor and Doug Insole, both of whom passed away this year, could not be there, too.
There is still a fortnight of the season to go, with Essex set to receive the trophy during their final fixture at home to Yorkshire, but the historians can start preparing their scrolls. Ravi Bopara was already thinking about future deeds – starting with going through the campaign unbeaten – before summing up what success means to those parochially passionate supporters for whom the boxy, hemmed-in old ground of “Chelms Fort” is cricket itself.
“The boys have done really well, I’m really happy for them, and maybe it’s time to recreate the glory days,” he said, “but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We respect all those guys and this is a little bit for them, those boys have done so much for the club, the likes of Graham Gooch, the Fletches, if weren’t for them we wouldn’t be here now, so a big mention to those guys.
“Essex is my home, this is where I’ve enjoyed my cricket, this is where all my best mates are. Tendo, he’s my best mate. This is the best… This is what I’ve dreamed of, to win trophies with Essex. I’m really happy with the fans, as well. They come here week in, week out. We have one of the best supports around the country – 50-over games, T20, we have good crowds for four-day games. I’m really happy for them. They deserve it as well. It’s been a special year.”