Cricket / County Championship: Victory for the Chelmsford spirit: Martin Johnson pays tribute to the qualities that have transformed Essex

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The Independent Online
THE only thing liable to keep the Essex treasurer awake at nights is wondering how to foot the silver polish bill. For the first 103 years of its existence, the Essex trophy cabinet was more of a wildlife sanctuary, home to spiders and dust mites, but it is a remarkable fact that they have now collected 11 major titles (including six Championships) since 1979.

Perhaps even more eyebrow raising is that they have won this year's championship, with two matches to spare, with a far less serviceable side than the 1991 model. Injuries have dogged them all summer, and Neil Foster, who took 91 Championship wickets last year, has missed 10 of their 20 matches.

It is partly the result of a moderate year for county cricket, but it is also a testament to Essex's unrivalled ability for squeezing the last drop from their available resources. No side has speculated quite so shrewdly in the overseas player market (their one real lemon was the South African bowler Hugh Page) neither are other counties quite as adept at picking up disaffected or unwanted players and revitalising their careers.

They win more matches from improbable positions than anyone else, and they are also the sort of side that wins Championships on dank, three-sweater days at Derby. Where others might hope that the next black cloud delivers, and the minds are straying towards a quiet game of cards and a spot of finger- thawing around the pavilion brazier, Essex think only of the job in hand. Man for man, there are more gifted sides around, but no one matches their all-round efficiency.

Graham Gooch puts it this way: 'I hope this doesn't sound too pompous, but I think that the Essex way of playing is the right way. We enjoy our cricket, but never lose sight of the fact that nothing is achieved without hard work.'

Gooch, the elbow-grease philosopher and half-marathon-before-breakfast man, also happens to be a purveyor of dry wit with a penchant for a pint of real ale, and he is the epitome of the Essex approach. Only socialise when the day's business has been concluded.

However, the single most influential figure at Essex since 1979 is not Gooch, but Keith Fletcher. Essex's official title for the Gnome, as he was dubbed when this slightly-built character first shuffled into the dressing room wearing a pair of turned-up winklepickers, is second team captain.

Unofficially (as there is scarcely anything that Essex undertake on a cricket field without his influence) he is the club guru. He was the only man England wanted to replace Micky Stewart, and it required a five-year contract to prise him away from Chelmsford, Essex, and his garden.

Fletcher, like Gooch, would prefer to have 'Essex and England' inscribed on his headstone rather than the other way around, and the new national team manager still regards Chelmsford as his spiritual home, even if he has lost his car parking spot. Next summer, Fletcher will be obliged to point his car in the direction of 'neutral' matches - Derbyshire v Essex, Surrey v Essex, Lancashire v Essex . . .

The image of a family club manifests itself in the nice touch of a 'wives and children' enclosure at the County Ground, and Essex win a good percentage of matches on team spirit alone. Gooch has been known to describe a Test match innings of 333 as 'not bad for an old 'un' and historic wins in the Caribbean as 'a reasonable effort'. However, when he wins trophies and pennants with Essex, he is barely able to put a cork in his emotions. Yesterday, he was verging on the euphoric.

One of the remarkable facets of Essex's cricket over the last 13 years or so, has been their ability to win without, apparently, taking themselves very seriously. Fielders have been known to borrow spectators' bicycles to get from third man to fine leg, and on one occasion, Ray East resumed an innings after tea having been given out shortly before it to what he protested had been a bump ball. Heavily disguised under a helmet, East turned to the umpire (Jack van Gelovan) as the bowler was running in, and said: 'Now then, Jack, that wasn't really out, was it?'

It is not quite as zany as that at Essex these days, and the dressing-room has its fair share of personality clashes. However, it is the way that their imported players (such as Salim Malik and Mark Waugh from overseas, and Peter Such and John Childs from other counties) quickly absorb an Essex identity that makes them tick so effectively.

The bad news for their opponents is that no one is more efficient at the four-day game, and yesterday's victory was their sixth in their last 10 over next year's uniform distance. The good news is that Essex's bowling is surely too long in the tooth and prone to infirmity for them to win again next year. Then again, that's what we thought this time last year.