We've been playing at Whitgift School this week, near Croydon. It's a lovely setting, and although I was disappointed with my batting first dig I've been enjoying the atmosphere. Outgrounds are a bit different. They are more informal and the public can get closer to the players. That's good because we're normal people, not superstars.
Before a few old team-mates start sending me those texts I'll admit I didn't always feel this way. I certainly wasn't too chuffed one afternoon at Uxbridge when I felt a bit hard done by when given out and, as I was going back to the pavilion, a spectator said something and I reacted badly with a few strong words. Back then I wasn't so keen about being close to the public. I like to immerse myself in the game and have my own space. I'd be quite wound up and focused on the match so I wasn't keen on talking to people. But in recent years I've become more relaxed and appreciate outgrounds more. Not that I've lost that fire in the belly. The dressing-room door had to be shut pretty sharpish after I chipped one straight to cover on Thursday.
I've never done well against Essex, which is ironic as my mother's family are from East Ham, my grandad was an Essex and West Ham United fan, and had I grown up there I might have ended up playing for them. But even this week, when I've come out to bat on a good wicket with 700 runs in my last four games, I can't get a run.
That may be one reason why I've never liked the Essex outgrounds - all right, it is a big reason. Southend, Ilford and Colchester are not my favourite places, especially Colchester. The dressing-room is very small, we have to share the toilets with the public, and it's a 50-yard walk to the boundary, then another 70 to the wicket. That's a long way for a first baller. Fortunately, we get our own toilets at Whitgift, and the hospitality is fantastic. Great biscuits.
2. Essex youngsters showing value of Gooch's guidance
Essex have some talented young batsmen, besides Alastair Cook who everyone now knows about. Graham Gooch has been coaching them and it shows. Their openers Mark Pettini and Varun Chopra, who are 22 and 18 respectively, had to open up against Mohammad Akram and Azhar Mahmood. They are both Pakistani Test bowlers and the pair played them very well.
I didn't have anything like the same composure and technique at their age, though that may have something to do with the fact I didn't wear a helmet. So for anyone above 80mph I was on the back foot. And everyone had a 90mph bowler then, usually one off the production line of West Indian quicks, and it was about avoiding the short ball. In this game the first bouncer was in about the 11th over and the batsmen could get on the front foot and be confident. As it happened Chopra nicked the first short one he got, but was dropped.
I was very happy when Gooch was helping the Test side in 1998 as I was always searching for a magic formula in Test cricket. He was a great player and I wondered what he did to be so successful. He made me realise you just do the simple things well. As Cook said, it's still the same game, bat versus ball, defend the straight ones, hit the ones you can. If you can communicate that to a young player they will come in and be confident.
3. It is not easy if your partner can't bat
There's been some talk of lower-order runs lately because of the length of England's tail. It looks like Monty Panesar's Test future may hang as much on his batting as his bowling. I asked the boys about it and one of our bowlers said: "Why not make the top four batters bowl, and judge them with the ball?" He has a point. I feel you pick bowlers to get 20 wickets. It's nice if they get a few runs but the top seven need to do it. That puts the spotlight on Geraint Jones. He seems undroppable under Duncan Fletcher but he has a tough series against Pakistan coming up and needs to get runs. But if he does not, will they drop him on the eve of the Ashes? And who for?
That said, it does help if the lower order get runs. Essex this week went from 227 for 8 to 365 all out, with Andre Adams scoring a swashbuckling 75 at No 10. During my Test career I had to partner players such as, with due respect, Ed Giddins, Alan Mullally and Phil Tufnell. It puts added pressure on you if your partner can't bat, but I felt sorry for them. It was hard enough for the batsmen facing in-swinging yorkers or bouncers at 90mph.
Batting was a laxative for Tuffers. His mood during an innings would be dictated by how our openers had played their quicks. If the ball was doing a bit he'd be dreading having to bat. He would wear every bit of protection going. Once, the strap on his chest pad broke. He taped himself up and looked like the Michelin man. Another time, the rollicking for a low team score was aimed at him after he'd been involved in another farcical run-out. It wasn't his fault, the other 10 hadn't got enough. Sometimes he was asked to bat No 9 or 10. He usually declined saying he preferred No 11 as he wouldn't have to walk off on his own.
Mullally was little better. We have nicknames for a row of ducks, four is an "Audi". In the 1998-99 Ashes series Mullally got "the Olympic rings". In the second Test he joined me when we were only 62 ahead in our second innings, with more than two days left. He was facing Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie on a quick Perth track and had no clue how to defend himself, let alone score runs. I then took a single off the first ball of an over. I didn't intend to, I thought I could run two. Obviously, he was out and I got a few strange looks in the dressing-room. But really, it was asking a bit much to expect the two of us to bat for two days.
I also batted with Devon Malcolm. I remember him coming out and asking me what guard to take to Shane Warne. In my best Jamaican I said: "Stand in front of the stumps and give it some licks." I'm sure the current crop will improve. They are all young and have focused on their bowling so far. With practice they will get better with the bat.
4. It's sad when your peers reach the end
This was one of those weeks which make you feel old. On Monday I got a call from the coach telling me that I was being rested for the remaining Cheltenham & Gloucester games to give myself more recovery time and some of the younger players a chance.
Then I saw that Paul Weekes, who I played with at Middlesex, had been told he could go out on loan to get some cricket as they were going to play the youngsters. I felt a bit sad - we started together and he is another coming towards the end of his time.
Then Ally Brown, who's 36, and who I played Under-12 cricket against, was left out of our Essex game. He responded with 130 for the second team and I'm sure with his desire he'll be back. But just as the old bones were creaking Martin Bicknell walked into the dressing-room. He was welcomed straight back into the team after injury, and he's 37, and a bowler. As long as he's around I won't feel too ancient - but he's threatening to retire at the end of the season.
On the subject of Ally, we've a new nickname for him. He's always been "Ghost" because, unlike most cricketers with their year-round tan, he's always as white as a sheet. We now call him "Silas" after the albino monk in The Da Vinci Code.
5. My eight-year-old is growing up fast
As we're playing in Croydon, which is a hike from my home near Watford, I've booked into a hotel. Since it's half-term my wife has taken Anya to Birmingham to see the grandparents, and my parents have taken Cara to Luxembourg for a week. Before she went she told me she was learning photosynthesis at school. I asked what it meant and she gave me a good reply and told me how to spell it. My little eight-year-old is growing up quickly.
Best Delivery of the Week
Ian Salisbury, our right-arm leg-spinner, has been bowling really well this season and he picked up his first five-for in years in the Essex first innings. It was a real treat standing in the field and seeing him get three batsmen with his well-disguised googly.
Best Shot of the Week
I'm tempted to go for Peter Crouch's goal in midweek, but I'll stick to my sport and pick Scott Newman's hook for six out of the ground off Essex's Ryan ten Doeschate. We got the ball back - slightly bruised and a bit softer.