Simon Harmer proves the man for all season in Essex’s title triumph | Tanya Aldred

The Guardian

The Guardian

Author 2019-09-26 22:28:36

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As was entirely apt for this summer of summers, Essex clinched the County Championship not with a damp whimper but in a heart-stopping afternoon at Taunton, despite rain that shortened the first and second days, washed out the third and punctuated the fourth. The County Ground slowly filled out – whispers of the impossible reaching the locals – the sun finally showed its hand, and Essex had to face a final hour of Jack Leach and Dom Bess on a raging turner.

It should never have been so close, but Essex collapsed, losing six in 31 balls after tea, with six fielders round the bat close enough to clip the batsmen’s nose hairs. It came down to Alastair Cook, the man who does not sweat, and there he stood with his legs folded, as if there was nothing he would rather do on a Thursday in September than fold forward repeatedly to muffle the spin. He saw Essex through to handshakes and the pennant, as befitted their leading run‑scorer of 2019.

County cricket: Essex crowned champions after draw at Somerset – as it happened

It was Essex’s ninth County Championship title, their second in three years, to crown a wonderful summer in which they became the first side to win both the championship and the T20 title in the same year, and clinch the club’s first double since 1985.

When Essex raised the pennant in 2017, with two games to spare, it felt era-defining, the first Essex team to have won the championship since the retirement of Graham Gooch. But the head coach, Chris Silverwood, then moved on to a position with England, to be replaced by Anthony McGrath, and they slipped to third last summer behind Somerset and Surrey.

This season was a different story. Essex almost sneaked up on the inside, with attention everywhere on the possibility of the perennial bridesmaids Somerset winning their first championship, something that had seemed, for romantics, to be written in the stars as a fitting farewell for Marcus Trescothick. At least until last week when Hampshire’s Kyle Abbott ripped through Somerset with the fourth best figures in County Championship history, giving Essex, who won at Surrey, a 12-point lead going into the final round, something that was always going to be tricky to overhaul, even on a Taunton wicket feathering dust by the second over. And so it proved.

Essex’s season had begun with defeat against Hampshire by an innings, but they did not lose a game from there, and captured every match at fortress Chelmsford. At one stage 50 points adrift of Somerset, they hit a victorious streak as Somerset faltered, winning seven of their last eight games coming into the final round.

Their not so secret weapon was the astonishing Simon Harmer, a spinner with remarkable tweak, and the Championship’s leading wicket-taker with 83, including an incredible 10 five-fers.

A champagne-soaked Ryan ten Doeschate, Essex’s captain, admitted his gameplan was “to get runs on the board for him [Harmer] to bowl at”. But he praised, too, his qualities as a man.

Harmer, who also won the PCA’s player of the year award, smiled the broadest of smiles. “For me it has been an unbelievable season, but I would happily have swapped any personal accolades for the team winning the title.” He gave a special mention to the coach McGrath as “the voice of reason”.

Essex, like Surrey last year, and Somerset, play with a team of mostly local boys who have come through their academy. Unlike Somerset, they were untroubled by England call‑ups, other than Jamie Porter with the Lions, and were strengthened by Cook finally hanging up his international cap.

Throw in help from Peter Siddle, whose cardboard cutout was brought to the celebrations and who nurtured the younger bowlers such as Sam Cook, an engine room of Dan Lawrence, Ravi Bopara and Tom Westley, and Ten Doeschate’s captaincy, and you have a formidable team – though one, perhaps ironically, not based at one of next year’s Hundred grounds.

As rain started to fall once more, and the celebrations started in earnest, Ten Doeschate spoke about why it all mattered. “The championship is tough,” he said. “It’s rigorous, it’s consistent and it’s very rewarding, and that’s why you set out to win it.”

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