TOM Westley feels Essex are starting the new season with ‘the best culture’ he has ever seen in sport.

Essex begin the new County Championship campaign at home to Kent this morning.

And skipper Westley is confident the team are well placed to secure more success, under head coach Anthony McGrath.

“Anthony McGrath has created the best culture I have ever witnessed within a sport’s changing room,” Westley told the PA news agency.

“His fundamental is you sign on character.

“You sign people who are ambitious, who buy into the team and who are selfless.

“I think that has underpinned a lot of our success.”

McGrath’s arrival, coupled with Chris Silverwood being promoted from bowling coach in 2016, sparked a trophy-laden spell for Essex, with homegrown players at the heart of their achievements.

Two County Championship triumphs, sandwiched between a Vitality Blast title, were followed by Bob Willis Trophy success in the coronavirus-affected 2020 campaign, with academy graduates Sir Alastair Cook, Dan Lawrence, Jamie Porter and Sam Cook key throughout.

Westley is proud of the environment created at Essex which allows youngsters to flourish and is hopeful the likes of Feroze Khushi, Michael Pepper and Jamal Richards can make big strides this term.

“I know we have had a lot of success over the last five or so years, but the fact we averaged eight homegrown players last season, and it will be exactly the same this year, is one of our greatest achievements as a club,” Westley, a fellow academy graduate, said.

“As long as you prioritise your homegrown players, it will always happen that they will get opportunities, they will learn off good senior players and how we go about our business.

“I think as long as we keep that balance and competition, I can’t see why, from the next crop of young Essex cricketers, several of them can’t step up, have long county careers and also push on for higher honours.”

Lawrence is the latest Essex player to represent England and was one of the few positives from last month’s tour of the Caribbean, hitting an eye-catching 91 to make it four half-centuries in 11 Tests.

The middle-order batter will be available to Essex for the opening six weeks of the season before he will hope for further international chances this summer against New Zealand and South Africa.

And Westley is not surprised to see Lawrence doing so well.

“Dan’s natural ability is up there with the best in the country,” said Westley.

“It is just whether he can get that extended run and opportunity and take his chance. I know he had a good tour of the West Indies, I’ve spoken to him a little bit already and he would have loved to have got a century.

“But I do think it is just a matter of time before he gets his first Test hundred and then it will be, ‘When is he available for Essex?’ not, ‘Will he play for England or not?’.”

However, Westley is optimistic Lawrence will not be the only Essex player in the England set-up this summer.

He added: “Sam Cook was bitterly disappointed not to be included on that West Indies tour and for me he is one of the best bowlers in the country.”