Back in ranks, Pettini enjoys life on other side of fence

The Essex stalwart is a changed man after giving up the captaincy. Now he hopes to help his county to Twenty20 glory next Saturday
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The Independent Online

Mark Pettini points to a ladder leaning against the garden fence of his rented flat. On the other side of the fence is the County Ground, Chelmsford. "I got the groundstaff to knock it up so I could just hop over in the mornings. Sometimes they wake me up mowing the square and outfield. It'll feel strange not being so close."

Having resigned the Essex captaincy last month, the fact Pettini is currently in the process of moving a little further afield is coincidental but, he is prepared to concede, reasonably symbolic of a changed relationship with the county he joined as a 16-year-old.

"I gave it everything I possibly could as captain, and this season it became increasingly clear to me that three years – almost to the day – was the longest I could do that for, effectively anyway. With the amount of effort that it required from me, that was as far as I could go.

"The other thing was that while I felt we'd achieved quite a lot in that time, in terms of trophies and a promotion, and that I'd learned a lot of management and organisation skills which I'll have forever, my form suggested I needed to go back to just worrying about myself.

"And if I'm honest, there was a part of me that wanted to see if I can improve as a player in the next three or four years without distractions. I'm not saying the captaincy definitely prevented me developing, but I wanted to be able to look back and know whether that was the case."

There have been signs since Pettini became the fourth county captain to resign this season – following Will Smith of Durham, Shaun Udal of Middlesex and Nicky Boje of Northamptonshire – which suggests the answer may already be apparent.

In the three innings that followed him missing the County Championship match against Yorkshire, Pettini scored 58 off 61 balls in the 40-over match against Northamptonshire, 81 off 56 balls in the Twenty20 quarter-final against Lancashire, and a rather more studious 88 off 246 balls in the County Championship against Kent.

Less pleasingly, the game against Kent was lost – Pettini scoring only four in the second innings – and, along with every other batsman in the match, he struggled to cope with the copious swing and seam available to bowlers during the match against Warwickshire which ended in defeat at Southend on Friday.

Overall, however, Pettini is increasingly sure he did the right thing. "Once I'd reached the decision to stand down – which took a long time – I had a break, did a spot of fishing and then, during the Championship game against Yorkshire, played in a second-team match against Middlesex and scored 96.

"That was really important, because when I played against Northants I felt as though I'd earned my spot. I didn't play against Yorkshire because I did not deserve a place, and maybe there were some who thought I might struggle to get back at all. But while I was at peace with the fact I could no longer be accused of getting in the side solely because I was captain, I felt if I went away and did well, I'd quickly get another chance. So it did me good to feel I had earned that chance sooner rather than later."

According to many regulars, the crowd's reaction to his innings against Lancashire was as warm as has been heard at Chelmsford for some time. He agrees it would be nice to think so. "Well, evening T20 cricket here has always been popular, and what with Lancs scoring 183 and us knocking it off to qualify for Finals Day, you could say they were happy they'd had their money's worth, but it was certainly as loud as I can remember.

"I think they do appreciate what we've tried to do, though, in terms of playing both successful and entertaining cricket. When I first joined Essex the dressing room probably had a slight hierarchy – not in a divisive way, like some counties, but there were guys who'd been at the club a long time, Ronnie Irani, Nasser Hussain, Stuart Law, Ashley Cowan, big players, and coming in as a youngster, you had a lot of respect for those guys.

"These days the dressing room is a very open one, in that nobody is nervous about saying what they think. From the start Larry [coach Paul Grayson] and I were determined to only bring in guys with the right character, as well as ability, and the crowd have gone with that."

Which, while it made it an even harder decision to stand aside as captain, is one of the reasons Pettini had no thoughts about needing a complete change of scene. "I guess some people might have thought it better to move on altogether, nowhere is right for everybody – [former England Under-19 captain] Varun Chopra was here and decided he'd benefit from moving to Warwickshire – but leaving is one thing that never crossed my mind.

"When you feel a real closeness to a club, and it's also a place where you've had success and won trophies, as a cricketer there's not a lot more you want really. On top of that I've got great guys who I trust to work with in Paul Grayson and Graham Gooch."

Pettini's goals for the remainder of the season are simple; to score as many match-affecting runs as possible, which he hopes will help ensure Essex stay in Division One; to emerge from next weekend's T20 Finals Day with the winner's trophy; and to quietly do what he can to help new captain James Foster settle into his responsibilities.

"One thing I do know is that as a captain you're helped immeasurably if you have other leaders on the team. I don't mean to talk to about bowling changes or whatever, but simply to act as mentors to less experienced guys. With a big six weeks coming up, that's a role I can play, because we have a fair number of young players.

"But for me personally, I am still only 26 years old, and hopefully I still have my best years as a player ahead of me. You look at guys like Ramps [Mark Ramprakash], [Graeme] Hick and Grant Flower and if you're good enough, and apply yourself properly, you can play a long time." Nor, eventually, would he rule out another stint as captain, particularly if the amount of cricket is reduced, as Pettini believes has to happen.

"If you look at the captains who have changed this year, for me you can certainly blame some of that on the amount of cricket. We've played 13 Championship games, and I think we'd played 10 before the start of T20, which is ludicrous. The schedule has been nothing short of crazy. Guys are getting through on adrenalin. The basic principle of playing competitions separately is right, but there needs to be more time for practice and recovery.

"Cricket should be about quality, not quantity. Sometimes I think we lose sight of that."

Other captains who have resigned this year

Will Smith (Durham) Stepped down in May after leading Durham to their second consecutive County Championship last season. Criticised for his lack of runs at No 3, the likeable Smith felt he had little alternative, though the loss of a quintet of seamers to injury hardly helped. Local boy Phil Mustard has come in and impressed, but Smith's treatment leaves a sour taste. Has yet to regain his place in the side.

Shaun Udal (Middlesex) The veteran off-spinner took over the captaincy at the end of 2008, but after a tough year in which the county finished second bottom of the Championship, and no major improvement this season, returned to the ranks in June. Replaced by Adam Gilchrist during the T20, then by Neil Dexter. "The indifferent cricket we've been playing wore him down," said the club's director of cricket, Angus Fraser. Still in the side.

Nicky Boje (Northamptonshire) A poor start to the season saw the 37-year-old all-rounder step down in May after two years. Led the county to T20 Finals Day last season but felt fellow South African Andrew Hall might be better at motivating players. Judging by their results since, he may have been right.

Chris Read (Nottinghamshire) The former England wicketkeeper moved aside to allow David Hussey to pick up the reins for T20 but the Australian continues to lead in other competitions. "It allowed me to have a break and hopefully it'll pay dividends in the other forms," said Read. Judging by Notts' success, others may follow suit.

Richard Rae

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