Prichard's rich season

NatWest Trophy final: While one team excel in the all-round game their opponents reign supreme over the shorter trip; Stephen Brenkley talks to the captain of an Essex team eyeing up a double
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At the age of 31 Paul Prichard may well have the most fulfilling period of his career ahead of him. This is not as it was meant to be back in the heady days of 1984 when, as an enviably stylish teenager, he first announced himself in the Essex side.

Not that it should be taken to diminish his contribution over the years since. He has been a key part of the county's middle order, a member of four Championship sides and has scored more than 13,000 runs. Yet, somehow, he is one of those batsmen from whom so much more might have been expected. As he was establishing himself as a county cricketer he made the accumulation of runs look so easy, dammit, and as often contrived to get out.

Now here he is, towards the end of his second year as the county's captain with the precious, prize double of Championship and NatWest Trophy beckoning. As the side is still in transition there should be more to come.

"I wouldn't say it's a complete team yet," said Prichard at Headingley where they were playing their fellow Championship hopefuls Yorkshire last week. "But it's a side where everybody has contributed on a given day. Everybody's had an important say at one time or another and if they do that twice a season you can win everything in sight. For youngsters it's much easier to come into a side that's winning. I know."

Prichard's immediate predecessors as Essex captain were Keith Fletcher and Graham Gooch and, as acts to follow go, strutting your stuff on stage after Olivier and Gielgud might be a doddle by comparison. The pair won three Championships each between 1979 and 1992. Fletcher's thoroughly versatile team won five one-day trophies as well.

"Nobody said it was going to be easy. I knew that," said Prichard. "But I also knew the Essex tradition and what we're capable of. It's helped that there are players still about who were part of so many victorious sides and we have a cricket committee here who are all ex-players. We're allowed to get on with it."

Prichard could hardly avoid mentioning the impact of the Australian all- rounder Stuart Law who had elegantly bludgeoned 11 hundreds in all competitions before joining his country's tour of Sri Lanka. But Essex never have been dependent on one man. The old warrior Gooch has made six Championship hundreds and last week declared his intention of carrying on for at least another year.

"Stuart's presence in the dressing-room has been a pleasure. He's so positive and so upbeat," said his skipper. "But the same goes for Ronnie Irani, who lends such balance to the side. What an enthusiast he is." But the veteran seam bowler Neil Williams has always been there or thereabouts, England's forgotten left-arm swing bowler Mark Ilott has plugged away inspirationally, Peter Such, another who has failed to captivate the chairman of selectors has found regular turn.

The captain has yet to add to his 25 career hundreds but his influence is obvious. So, too, is his mettle. For a month this summer Prichard batted on with a broken finger. Last year, his first in charge, Essex won their final five Championship matches and last week before going to Yorkshire overhauled that with their sixth straight win. (Irani took 44 wickets in the sequence.) Even in a purportedly indifferent Championship this is some roll to be on.

As for the NatWest, Prichard has barely begun to assess the contest, except to say that after containing Surrey in the semi-final they are ready even for the might of Lancashire. It would be Essex's first NatWest Trophy since 1986. Even Gooch and Fletcher never achieved the glorious double.

But Prichard, ready for a new era, typically underplays himself: "If I play for another 30 years, I suppose I might be a fair captain."