Thrift halts grand ambition

Cricket: Derek Pringle suggests money has cost Essex their recent dip in fortunes
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The Independent Online
SUCCESS can be a demanding mistress. What starts as an intoxicating love affair can quickly become a burden once the initial thrill has ebbed away. Like Essex man, Essex County Cricket Club were a success story of the 1980s, their bold and resilient cricket being both the toast and the envy of all the other counties. But if success is meant to bring success, what has become of Essex since they last won the Championship in 1992?

Until recently, Essex have enjoyed player loyalty unsurpassed by other clubs, which makes the exodus of proven talent - Nick Knight to Warwickshire, John Stephenson to Hampshire and Nadeem Shahid to Surrey - rather puzzling. It may be that heightened expectation has brought with it an even greater pressure that has ruthlessly tugged at the team's spirit with destructive results.

Having lost several key players through retirement, Essex could ill afford to lose those who were both the present and the future. In truth, Shahid and Stephenson both left to further their ambitions, the latter's aspirations of captaincy being thwarted at Essex once Paul Prichard was named Gooch's heir. Both moved on more or less with the club's blessing, but Knight's surprising last-minute departure is said to have caused apoplexy among the committee.

It did not surprise everyone. For a club attuned to modern winning ways, Essex have remained in the Dark Ages as far as player relations is concerned. Apparently a conflict arose when Knight, one of a growing number of ambitious young players keen to make the best possible living out of the game sent his agent, Jonathan Barnett, into bat.

Essex, as is their wont, refused to deal with Barnett. Peeved by their arrogance, Knight, who also wanted reassurances that he would open the innings, decided to go where he felt his services were more likely to flourish as well as being better rewarded.

There has been a feeling in the dressing-room that Gooch's unwilting loyalty and acceptance of the club's terms has unwittingly held the rest of the staff back. The club, blinded by the gargantuan deeds and magnanimity of a player easily worth three times his Essex salary, were deaf to the needs of others unable to match Gooch's earning power over and above his county wage.

Several of this season's opponents also reckon that the handing down of ideas, from Fletcher to Gooch to Prichard, has become too predictable for a young side needing urgency and new direction. This view is not shared by Prichard's team-mates, who claim his only fault to date has been an inability to win the toss, and three close defeats have been put down to this lack of fortune.

This aside, part of Essex's problems are structural and deep-seated, stemming from their humble and cautious beginnings as a club. Before making their headquarters at Chelmsford in the 1960s, they existed as a makeshift unit playing home games at more than half a dozen venues.

Thrift has always been their watchword. It still is today, and they choose their bargains wisely before knocking them into shape rather than pay the big money demanded by established stars. The likes of John Childs, Peter Such and Mike Garnham are evidence enough of this.

Such bargains only work if home-grown players are regularly coming through the ranks, which they never really have. Essex have a particularly lamentable record in this area, with Neil Foster the only bowler of note to have come from Essex in the past 20 years.

Over the years little investment or thought ever found its way into the second team (something changing under Alan Butcher) and a whole generation, particularly the bowlers, appear ill-equipped to fill the places made vacant by early departures. As a result, too much pressure is being placed on the opening bowler Mark Ilott (now injured), so early breakthroughs are proving elusive.

Essex still have a strong batting line-up and their is a feeling that soon a county is going to find Gooch, Waugh, Prichard and Hussain all on song and suffer accordingly. With two good spinners and an emerging all-rounder in Ronnie Irani, those close to the team feel that they are only two good seam or swing bowlers away from being potent again.

But broad changes are sweeping the game and Essex, once a wacky and endearing family of a team to play for, is being left behind. These days players are not prepared to join clubs with big reputations unless there is a big salary to match. Unlike Essex man, Essex the club have never been flash with their cash; they will have to be if they are to remain a big club.