Alastair Cook will follow his appearance on Countryfile with his own version of Springwatch over the next few weeks – a close-up view of some of England’s most promising batting talent.
Cook took a break from the lambing at his Bedfordshire farm this week to play in Essex’s two-day warm-up fixture against Kent in Canterbury. He opened up with 88, a highly satisfactory return in his first innings since the end of England’s Test series against South Africa in January, before being run out at the non-striker’s end by a deflected drive – getting that unusual form of dismissal out of the way for 2016.
The England Test captain is set for an unusually long run in county cricket in the early stages of the season, as Essex have four fixtures in the Specsavers County Championship before the build-up begins to the first Investec Test of the summer against Sri Lanka at Headingley.
Like all the England players who are denied the chance to play more regularly for their counties by the international schedule, Cook will relish the opportunity to make a contribution to Essex’s bid to end their long stint in the second tier – a tougher task than ever this summer, with only one promotion place available.
— Essex Cricket (@EssexCricket) March 23, 2016
An added bonus will be the chance to resume his opening partnership with Nick Browne, the left-hander from Leytonstone whose impressive 2015 campaign was recognised by his inclusion in the MCC team that played – and beat – the champions Yorkshire in Abu Dhabi this week.
Both batsmen will be followed by Tom Westley, the stylish right-hander who endured a mostly frustrating white-ball winter with England Lions, but enjoyed a much more productive return to the UAE alongside Browne with the MCC, stroking an important half century in their second innings.
And it is not only the Essex loyalists who are convinced that the county can boast another future England batsman in its ranks in Dan Lawrence, the teenager from Chingford who has already offered a few tantalising glimpses of his potential.
Lawrence, who has been immersed in the game since his childhood as his father was the groundsman at Chingford CC, became Essex’s youngest ever Championship centurion with a stunning innings against Surrey at the Kia Oval last spring.
He followed that with a brace of matchwinning innings for England Under-19s in their Royal London One-Day Series against Australia, and then made a flying start to the ICC Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh earlier this year.
Lawrence reflected before the tournament, filming a video for the ICC in the Chelmsford pavilion, on the amount he has already learned from Cook – this spring offers a golden opportunity to soak up plenty more.
But the batting talent at Chelmsford does not end there.
Callum Taylor, an all-rounder from Norfolk, also made his senior debut last summer before joining Lawrence in Bangladesh. Aaron Beard is even younger, having enjoyed his first taste of the spotlight when he played against Cook’s England team for Essex in a pre-Ashes friendly in 2013 at the age of 15.
But he was also in the senior team at Canterbury this week – and following the confirmation of Chris Silverwood as permanent successor to his fellow Yorkshireman Paul Grayson as head coach during the winter, the youngsters are set to be given their head.
Silverwood worked closely with Lawrence, Taylor, Beard and Jamie Porter, the seamer whose excellent 2015 form was recognised by inclusion on the Potential England Performance Programme this winter, before his promotion – which has been a highly popular decision at Essex and beyond.
That was one of a number of changes over the winter, with Ryan ten Doeschate taking over from James Foster as the four-day captain, Ravi Bopara assuming the role in white-ball cricket , Westley promoted to vice-captain – and Silverwood recruiting another Yorkie, Anthony McGrath, to join him as batting coach.
With Bopara hungry to make an impact – and underlining his ability again in a stint in the Pakistan Super League during the winter – there is a new mood of optimism at Chelmsford, which has been further fuelled by the signings of Adam Milne and Wahab Riaz as overseas players who could make a real impact.
There will also be considerable interest in the nature of the pitches at the Essex County Ground. Essex, and specifically David Masters and Jesse Ryder, tend to be identified as the greatest beneficiaries of the seam-friendly tracks that have caused controversy in the Championship in recent years, especially in Division Two.
The experimental change in regulations surrounding the toss this season has been introduced to produce more pitches that encourage four-day matches. Given the talent in their batting line-up, Essex look well-equipped to compete, on any type of surface.