The only way is Essex

Anthony McGrath is eyeing a shot at a title defense for Essex before the season is out, but he accepts it’s far more likely to be their T20 Blast crown than the County Championship.

The Yorkshireman took over from Chris Silverwood in November 2017, shortly after his former county team-mate had joined the England coaching set-up.

Since then, he has presided over an unprecedented double, which last season saw Ryan Ten Doeschate’s side bring both the County Championship and the Twenty20 trophies back home to Chelmsford.

Back in September, that prompted party time in a county that has never been afraid to let its hair down.

The atmosphere is altogether more sober currently, as McGrath prepares for what remains of the season, not at the CloudFM County Ground, but back home in Yorkshire.

It wasn’t quite what he expected when 1 January ticked round. But he’s still hoping his side can send the champagne corks popping again if and when the T20 Blast gets underway.

“We’re all frustrated, we all want to get back playing,” he tells TheCC. “I think it’s more likely that shortest format will be prioritised, whether that’s the full tournament as we know it, or whether we’re split up into different groups.

“We’re the current holders so whatever guise it comes back in, we’ll be determined to keep hold of that trophy.

“Mind you, Chelmsford will be a lot quieter than we’re used to. I think it will be a bit surreal for everyone.

“Chelmsford and the southern group, the attendances we’ve had at Lords, the Oval, Hove, everywhere really, have been incredible.

“Watching the Bundesliga on TV and other events without any crowds is just so weird,” he continues. “It’ll be hard for the guys to get their head round it, but everyone realises what situation we’re in – we’ll try and make the best of it.

“At some point we’ll get those great nights back; where Chelmsford is full, and the atmosphere will be rocking again.”

For now, most Essex players would settle for being able to simply strap on their pads and have a hit in the nets. Not a rock ‘n’ roll ambition but one in tune with the times.

While the future remains uncertain, one thing is clear – and that’s the fact that Essex will continue to rely on a spine that is largely homegrown, with the likes of Jamie Porter, Varun Chopra, Sam Cook, Aaron Beard, Nick Brown and Dan Lawrence having all come through the county’s youth ranks. That’s before throwing in Alastair Cook, whose presence was a vital one as Essex gradually eased through the gears to chase Somerset down in last season’s County Championship.

That reliance on homegrown products is one that’s familiar to a coach who grew up playing for a Yorkshire side which subscribed to the very same model. After all, just three years before McGrath made his Tykes’ debut, Yorkshire’s rules dictated that only players born inside the county’s own borders could wear the famous white rose.

No such dictat ever came from the Chelmsford hierarchy, but Essex have clearly struck upon a philosophy that works.

“It has been a big factor, I think we now have 16 lads who have come through the system, either through elite cricket or the academy,” he says.

“I think it bodes really well not just for consistency, but I think there’s a real understanding in the local community, where friends and family have grown up. I think it gets everyone together and, as a club, it’s something we’ve tried to do – we’ve tried to give the young guys a way in.

“You get sustainability that way. If you have young players coming through then the guys in the academy can see a path through to the first team and you get that togetherness. The one thing I would point to as a crucial factor in Essex’s success is that togetherness. It’s not an easy thing to do but while you’ve got it you’ve got to try and keep that going for as long as possible.

“I grew up in Yorkshire and certainly in my early days there it was very much like that – it was everyone from the local community, the local area coming together. That’s how you get a real bond and a real team spirit.”

This era of Essex success – possibly the greatest period in the club’s history since the 1980s when they won three County Championships, two John Player Leagues and one Gillette Trophy title – is very much a local success story.

But there is a Yorkshire theme running through it. Essex’s title in 2017, straight after promotion from Division Two in 2016, was won under the guidance of Silverwood, who came through the Yorkshire side in tandem with McGrath.

“You get sustainability that way. If you have young players coming through then the guys in the academy can see a path through to the first team and you get that togetherness. The one thing I would point to as a crucial factor in Essex’s success is that togetherness. It’s not an easy thing to do but while you’ve got it you’ve got to try and keep that going for as long as possible.”

And the transition between both reigns has proved to be almost seamless.

“We pretty much played all our cricket together before he left and moved to Middlesex (in 2006),” says McGrath.

“In the mid-90s, from the Second XI onwards we played together, we both grew up in the same environment and culture.

“There is so much cricket played in both Yorkshire and Essex and the league system in both counties means there are so many players coming through.

“I think it’s really important that you have good coaches in the junior ranks and that you have a good scouting network.

“There are players out there. You don’t always have to go out and sign players from outside the club. Of course you want to be able to bring in as much quality as you can – and Simon Harmer as an overseas signing has been absolutely incredible for us – but there are enough cricketers in your local area to come through and forge good careers, whether that’s with Essex or England.”

When cricket resumes, with money likely to be tight for the foreseeable future, it’s the sort of policy that might not just bring success – it might also offer a financial lifeline.

“It’s going to affect every industry, not just sport,” says McGrath. “We don’t know what’s going to happen to overseas players, for example. Are they going to be allowed back in? Teams that have got a good quantity of local players might be slightly better placed.

“These young guys are going to get a chance. That’s one of the positives as well. You’re going to have to utilise your squad to the maximum.

“Hopefully we’ll get a couple of months in and there will be quite a bit of cricket. The younger guys will certainly get a chance.”

Despite the manifest challenges facing the county game, the pandemic is also a time of opportunity for those who are able to rise to them.

Silverwood has shown himself well capable of doing just that, having presided over a series win with England in South Africa back in January.

His successor at Chelmsford, meanwhile, has already carved his name into Essex folklore after last season’s double triumph. So, would McGrath fancy one day following Silverwood into the England coaching set-up?

“I’ve always said that you should never look too far ahead,” he says. “I think if you do the job you’re in as well as possible then other things will come along.

“I’ve only been head coach here for two years so I’m still relatively new to it. Of course, to work for your country at some point would be every coaches dream, and I’m no different.

“Hopefully one day I might get the chance.”

For now, that can wait.

McGrath and his Essex side have already shown they have a taste for silverware – and although the Championship might have to keep for another 12 months, back-to-back T20 titles would be the best consolation prize going. And another huge step forward, for both coach and county.