Morality tale from a team in turmoil

Essex's startling decline – relegation, dressing-room wars, rising costs, declining standards – contains lessons for all

Some time tomorrow the most prodigious overseas cricketer of his generation will be sacked. Or resign. Or both. It matters not: Stuart Law will be leaving Essex. The parting will not be amicable. If there are belated expressions of regret from either side that it should have come to this they will not be heartfelt. Too many other expressions containing bitterness, anger and distrust, all of them heartfelt if some of them brain-dead, have been uttered for that.

Some time tomorrow the most prodigious overseas cricketer of his generation will be sacked. Or resign. Or both. It matters not: Stuart Law will be leaving Essex. The parting will not be amicable. If there are belated expressions of regret from either side that it should have come to this they will not be heartfelt. Too many other expressions containing bitterness, anger and distrust, all of them heartfelt if some of them brain-dead, have been uttered for that.

Law has scored more than 11,000 runs in all competitions in his six seasons with the club. He is a wonderful player. That he should be departing at all is astonishing, saying something about him, the county, the domestic game. He goes with Essex in turmoil. It is just possible the abrasive Law will take down with him, in what is expected to be a clear-out, Keith Fletcher, Essex player, captain and now coach and most eminent citizen. Fletcher was responsible for year upon year of success but he knows the team have been awful this season.

Since the Australian batsman aired his grievances about the county and his colleagues six weeks ago it has seemed to point to a deeper malaise. The Essex Boys, like Essex Girls, might be getting it in the neck for all manner of tawdriness, but the suspicion is that they might only be a microcosm of the wider English cricket world.

The team have had a woeful season which has culminated in Championship relegation, the dressing room has become a natural forum for internecine rivalry. In this atmosphere the players have performed abjectly – or maybe one created the other. All 23 professionals are out of contract at the end of the summer and the retained list will be announced tomorrow. Less exalted heads than Law's will roll. They are believed to include Stephen Peters, who three years ago made a century for England Under-19s when they won the World Cup final, the former England off-spinner Peter Such, the county's former captain Paul Prichard and two spinners who have never quite made the grade, off-breaker Tim Mason and the once-promising but now yips-suffering left-armer Michael Davies. Others might consider themselves fortunate.

Nor is this all. The club chairman resigned in mid-season; two other senior players – Prichard and Mark Ilott – have made known their discontent and one of their fast bowlers, Ashley Cowan (who has been offered a one-year contract) was reprimanded and fined for poor on-field behaviour last week. The county made a loss last year for the first time in two decades and although this year's balance sheet should have a slightly rosier glow the concerns about rising wages will not make the bottom line exactly sparkle.

All this, do not forget, in a club who won 13 trophies in 19 years until 1998, were a model of all-round harmony and who have provided three recent England captains, including the present one. The point would seem to be that if it can happen at Essex it can happen anywhere and probably is doing.

At the epicentre of this veritable maelstrom is David East, the county's former wicketkeeper, who has been their chief executive for little more than a year. He is tired, pressured and astonishingly sanguine. While he is painfully aware of his little local difficulty he is not taking his eyes off the bigger picture.

"It has been challenging," he understated neatly last week as Essex were midway through producing another exhibition of indolent mediocrity masquerading as first-class cricket. "This year has been difficult for everybody. Some pretty vitriolic things have been said, some pretty nasty stuff about incompetent coaches and such like has been on websites. The players have put their hands up and said 'Look guys, it's got nothing to do with coaches, it's us, we're letting you down.' But we will have to make changes this winter, no question about it." They are in the hiring business – and it will cost to get good players to division two.

Surely the club cannot terminate links with Fletcher, who joined 40 years ago, who was the main architect of their playing success as captain and middle-order batsman, who has one of the finest of all cricketing brains. But they might, they just might. If East and the cricket committee stop short of that it is clear that he has mulled over hard decisions for the future of the club and the game.

"Players' salaries have shot through the roof and it can only be sustained for a certain time," he said. "People are demanding more and more and we have a situation where you want success and you therefore need to retain and attract quality players but the ante is going up. It's getting to the critical stage. I hope it doesn't get to the stage where it becomes necessary to have wholesale sackings of players. I'd like to see some form of salary-capping.

"Two or three counties are in real financial trouble and while I don't want to see any go out of business I worry about the integrity of the game. They would take short-term measures to ensure their future, staff-cutting or reducing commit-ments to the development of the game. But we have an obligation to that."

East is not kidding himself that it will endure as at present, not least because of standards. The players (generally, not only at Essex) are just not good enough. "There are a number of professional cricketers who in other professional circuits would probably not be employed. I don't want to cost anybody their jobs but if we are trying to raise the standard we've got to find a mechanism to do so."

Essex's good years and sound piloting have given them plenty of reserves, for which East can be grateful to his long-serving predecessor, Peter Edwards. It is 19 months since Edwards died in South Africa. It took Essex four months to appoint East, who was marketing manager. If there are days when he wonders why he did not stick to his ambition of becoming a doctor he denies it. "I'm very optimistic. We won't get it right overnight. The process will take three to five years. I'm not one for playing the 'in my day' sketch but if we can learn anything from the way things were done when we were successful we should."

Maybe the best hope for East, Essex and county cricket comes in one of those website messages: "We are about to lose the best batsman on the circuit and the best batsman we've ever had. Why? Because of the idiots who play for us and run this club." Oafish maybe. But it shows that somebody out there still cares.

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