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Lever, McEwan and the rise of the Essex boys

John Lever took 99 Championship wickets in 1979 PA Images Archive/Getty Images

June 22, 1979
Essex 435 for 9 dec (McEwan 185, Pont 77, Kirsten 3-58) beat Derbyshire 258 (Tunnicliffe 57, Walters 54, Swarbrook 52, Lever 5-72, Phillip 4-59) and 137 (Lever 4-45, Phillip 4-28) by an innings and 40 runs
Scorecard

July 13, 1979 Essex 240 (Denness 65, Hadlee 4-49, Bore 3-55) and 229 (Turner 68*, Bore 5-79) beat Nottinghamshire 300 (Rice 86, Tunnicliffe 56, East 4-93, Philip 3-54) and 123 (Acfield 5-28, East 5-76) by 46 runs
Scorecard

Rather like the county they represent so proudly, Essex's cricketers go about their business with little grandeur and no fuss. If they are piqued that their club is regarded as small - and who would not be? - they rarely show it, preferring instead to win matches and see what comes of it. Perhaps only then, someone like Keith Fletcher will say how curious it is that a side of such lowly status has managed to collect seven more Championships in the 40 seasons since their first in 1979.

Fletcher, of course, led Essex to their first three titles before handing over to Graham Gooch, who picked up three more. The last two have been won under the leadership of Ryan ten Doeschate, most recently at a damp Taunton last September when Alastair Cook's clenched fist salute to the away dressing room signalled the job was done. Fletcher, Gooch and Cook all captained England; they played a total of 338 games for their country and scored a total of 60 Test hundreds. But their hearts belonged to Essex, too, and one always felt they returned to the compact ground in New Writtle Street with gratitude and relief.

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Every one of those titles was celebrated with boisterous abandon, all the more so, perhaps because there had been plenty of grim years before the pennant could be hoisted atop the Chelmsford pavilion. Admitted to the Championship in 1895, Essex had only twice finished in the top three before August 21, 1979 when the news reached Wantage Road on the dot of six o'clock that Worcestershire had drawn at Derby, thus confirming Fletcher's team as the champions. Half an hour earlier Brian Hardie's unbeaten century had taken his side to victory against Northamptonshire. It was their 11th win of the summer and there were to be two more before the season's end. Essex had first led the table on June 1 and finished the campaign 77 points ahead of Worcestershire.

"The basic philosophy of the club has not changed and the committee are determined that it will not do so," Doug Insole, the chairman, said at the end of that season, in which Essex had also won the Benson and Hedges Cup. "Cricket is for enjoyment and for entertainment. It must be profitable; it must be business-like; but most of all, it must be cricket."

That relatively simple philosophy still holds true in Chelmsford. You would struggle to find any Championship-winning team whose members do not mention team spirit, but the collective ethos seems particular powerful at Essex. It has allowed England players to be developed and then welcomed back; it has allowed high-quality overseas cricketers to be recruited and retained; but each member of those two groups must understand that Essex does not warm to any self-anointed Billy Bigbollocks pulling his imagined rank.

Neither John Lever nor Ken McEwan was guilty of such arrogance in 1979 and both men enjoyed fine seasons. When Derbyshire were overwhelmed by an innings at Chelmsford in late June, McEwan reached his century in 85 minutes and contributed 103 of the 131 runs in his third-wicket partnership with Mike Denness. The South African's 185 helped Essex post a first-innings lead 177, leaving Lever to add four more wickets to the five he had picked up when Derbyshire had batted on the first day. Such feats were not particularly exceptional for either cricketer that season. Over the previous fortnight Lever had taken 13 wickets in successive games against Leicestershire and Warwickshire. He dismissed 53 batsmen in June and finished the season with 106 first-class wickets, 99 of them in the Championship. It was no wonder that Derek Pringle paid particular tribute to "JK" when he looked back on his time at Essex during the '80s in his 2018 book Pushing the Boundaries:

"Players considered to be a 'captain's dream' are mostly mythical beasts existing in the minds of fantasists, yet JK managed to embody it for Essex…Need a wicket, whistle up JK. Need to keep it tight for 40 minutes, bring on JK. Need some yorkers at the death, give the ball to JK. He was a bowling everyman with the endurance to match."

Those early weeks were also memorable for McEwan, who made 787 runs in the first nine Championship matches before losing his form a little later in the season. By then, though, the South African, who had no prospect of playing Test cricket, was well-ensconced at Chelmsford. He would score over 1000 runs in each of his 12 seasons at the club and would contribute to two more Championship wins. Before him there had been Keith Boyce; after McEwan's return to South Africa there would be Allan Border, Mark Waugh and, eventually, Simon Harmer. All of them bought into the Essex approach but rarely did they earn tributes quite as affectionate as that written by David Lemmon about one of McEwan's innings in 1983:

"Once, while making a century against Kent in Tunbridge Wells, Ken McEwan straight drove, square cut and pulled Derek Underwood to the boundary in the space of one over. Each shot was executed with regal charm, and never a hint of arrogance. He batted, as did the ancients, upright, correct and magisterial. He was incapable of profaning the art of batting, incapable of an ineloquent gesture."

"Fletcher might never have been able to remember anyone's name, including most in his own team, but he knew how they played" Derek Pringle on Keith Fletcher

McEwan's own feelings towards Essex during those dozen summers were expressed in humbler but no less revealing words: "At pre-season practice we had to put up the nets ourselves and, if somebody was moving some chairs, we had to go and help them. It was a lovely atmosphere. Every day I had a good laugh. I felt very at home."

But both Lever and McEwan knew that Essex's success never revolved entirely around their performances. That was proved at Southend three weeks after the win against Derbyshire. Nottinghamshire were the visitors and for most of the three days they outplayed their hosts, gaining a 60-run first-innings lead and then dismissing Essex for 229 in their second dig. Lever had been selected in the Test squad and McEwan made only 27 runs in the match; Essex only set their visitors as many as 170 to win because the invaluable Stuart Turner made an unbeaten 68 and put on 42 with for the last wicket with David Acfield.

None of which seemed to matter very greatly when Nottinghamshire were 87 for 1 but then the spinners Ray East and Acfield took the last nine wickets for 36 runs on a deteriorating pitch. It was another triumph for Essex and for the tactical ability of a skipper whose ability and services to the game have been insufficiently recognised - except, that is, in Chelmsford.

"Fletch was tactically astute," Gooch said. "He knew the game inside out. And he had an incessant drive to win, which is important in county cricket because you're on a treadmill. Some county sides were happy for it to rain. But we weren't. 'You can't win points in the dressing room,' Fletch said. He never let things drift."

Nor were Fletcher's abilities lost on the young Pringle, who rated his county captain a shrewder skipper than Mike Brearley: "Fletcher might never have been able to remember anyone's name, including most in his own team. But he knew how they played, especially Essex's opponents, and set traps accordingly.

"Every season Fletcher would look at the fixture list and surmise that Essex would probably need 12 or 13 victories to clinch the County Championship title. He'd then begin to identify, bad weather notwithstanding, where and against whom they might eventuate.

"He would also predict, broadly, how we might clinch those matches: 'JK will win us four with the ball; Goochie four with the bat; the other bowlers and batsmen a couple each,' he used to say. It was a reductive approach, and ridiculously facile for such a complex game, but it was uncanny how often his gnomic prophecies proved correct."

This determination to play attractive, winning cricket became known as The Essex Way. It brought the county their eight titles and a host of one-day trophies. Yet the Way seems little more than an aim, one that might be shared by most first-class counties. Its achievement was altogether more complex. It was founded, as is the case with any successful sports team, on the ability of the players. Its development, however, was dependent on the willingness of those players to consider their own achievement only in the context of the common pursuit; and equally, it rested on the tactical ability of a captain who was ready to take all manner of risks in pursuit of a possible victory. To lose one or two players, as Essex often did in the era of Gooch, Lever, Pringle and Neil Foster simply made demands on others to mend any breach.

"There was no coach, no gym, no indoor nets, no standalone outdoor nets, no psychologists," Pringle writes, "just a scorer, a physio and a captain who dared his team to win, no matter the circumstance."

To reduce The Essex Way simply to its ultimate goal is to make nearly as daft an error as to think Essex itself is no more than boy racers, cheap entertainment and TOWIE. As Gillian Darley shows in her book Excellent Essex the county is the "most overlooked and undersold." in England; and when Robert Macfarlane made his superb film "The Wild Places of Essex" he visited not night clubs and nail bars but Tilbury Power Station, where he saw peregrine falcons and Billericay, where there were badgers, bluebells and barn owls. Most evocatively and mysteriously of all, there is the passage in John Le Carré's novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in which Peter Guillam is driving the former spymaster George Smiley to see an agent who has had to be hidden deep in England. Essex, it seems, is the natural choice.

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"On the signposts were names like Little Horkesley, Wormingford and Bures Green, then the signposts stopped and Guillam had a feeling of being nowhere at all…

"As they got out the cold hit them and Guillam smelt a cricket field and woodsmoke and Christmas all at once; he thought he had never been anywhere so quiet or so cold or so remote."

And just as there is far more to Essex than Basildon, so there was far more to The Essex Way than a preparedness to take risks. Fletcher possessed perhaps the most instinctive and acute understanding of what could be achieved in a three-day county match during the modern era; his reward was a trio of titles which his players marked with appropriate revels. And they still enjoy their victories at Chelmsford, as journalists found when they were leaving the ground one evening in June 2017. A couple of hours earlier Harmer's 14th wicket had sealed victory in the day-night game against Middlesex with eight balls to spare. But the songs of triumph were still ringing out from the home dressing room at near midnight. Just as they were, somewhere in Essex, last September.

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