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All to prey for

Few teams will fancy trip to fortress Chelmsford, says Wardy

Loosening Essex's grip will be tough...

Essex launch their defence of the FP Trophy against Northamptonshire on Sunday and there's no doubt they will once again be one of the toughest one-day teams to beat this season.

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"Every time I talk to Grayson about the plans he's got in place I'm very impressed; to have that clarity of mind off the field really does help you as a player."

Ian Ward

Quotes of the week

The Eagles were a well-organised outfit last year and under coach Paul Grayson had very good plans which skipper Mark Pettini executed well on the field.

Graham Napier provided the little sprinkle of magic dust - particularly in the Twenty20 when he launched that ferocious assault to crush Sussex.

He was also a key man in the other competitions and his early-season absence due to IPL commitments will hamper their progress.

Challenging

But the other mainstays of the side are available, including the hugely-experienced Grant Flower who played an absolute gem of an innings to see Essex home in last year's FP Trophy final and backed it up a few weeks later in the Division Two play-off decider against Kent.

Throw in new signing Matt Walker - another very good one-day player - and I fully expect Essex to be right up there challenging for one-day honours again, even though they have no out-and-out stars in their seam department in terms of international bowlers.

But if you have a decent plan you don't have to bowl at 90mph in one-day cricket.

In David Masters, Ryan ten Doeschate and Maurice Chambers they've got some good seamers and Napier, when available, adds some depth while spinner James Middlebrook is a canny bowler. Flower can also turn his arm over and adds to what is a nice mix.

Pressure

With the seamers they have, wicketkeeper James Foster can stand up to the stumps a lot of the time and he does so brilliantly.

It reminds me of the time when Gloucestershire were sweeping all before them; Jack Russell was up at the stumps and allowed people like Mike Smith, Ian Harvey and Mark Alleyne to exert extra pressure on the batsmen.

New England team director Andy Flower will certainly know what Foster is capable of and now he's fully in charge will have more of a say in selection but does that mean Essex can expect to see less of their wicketkeeper this season?

I'm not sure. Matt Prior is a man in possession at present but if Foster has a good season then who knows? It's incredible how the debate still rages about the keepers in this country. The bottom line is that if Foster's form is good, he's the next in line to take Prior's place.

Back up

With all due respect to Essex, Division Two of the Championship is where they belong at the moment because of the bowling attack. I don't think the batsmen will struggle to score heavily but can they take 20 wickets over a four-day game?

Once he arrives, Danish Kaneria will provide the X-factor and if he has a sensational summer he might do enough to get them up. But he will need back up. Look at Sussex during Mushtaq Ahmed's time at Hove; Robin Martin-Jenkins, Jason Lewry and James Kirtley picked up wickets at the other end. The question is whether Masters and Chambers can do the same in sufficient numbers.

Every time I talk to Grayson about what he's doing and the plans he's got in place I'm very impressed; to have that clarity of mind off the field really does help you as a player and, I imagine, as a captain on the field too.

Pettini, with the experience that he gained last year, should benefit. He will probably have sat down this winter and highlighted the areas where he can improve; he's got a trophy under his belt now and that can only give him confidence to implement Grayson's plans on the field.

Ampitheatre

And let's not forget the 'fortress Chelmsford' factor either; you are guaranteed a home tie if you top your FP Trophy group this year and Essex have a brilliant record on their own patch in recent seasons.

It's incredibly rare for a one-day game at Chelmsford not to be a sell-out. That is always a help - any cricketer wants to play in front of a packed house, particularly a boisterous one.

The ground is like a little amphitheatre and the Essex players seem to thrive off the passion of the spectators.

The boundaries are short and the batsmen know how to work the angles and Napier, in particular, is expert at clearing the fence. Home advantage is very important to them and they probably exploit all of the benefits of playing at home better than any other county.