UNDER normal circumstances, Essex would this week be embarking on the defence of their Vitality Blast T20 title, writes MARTIN SMITH.

The now defunct fixture list had offered them an early opportunity to make amends for the one major blot on last season’s success with Somerset returning to Chelmsford.

On a humiliating August night, Essex failed to make half of the 226-run target set by Somerset, losing their last eight wickets in just five overs. At the halfway point of the group stage, Essex’s prospects of further progress had looked remote.

“We were just terrible,” admitted head coach Anthony McGrath as he reflected this week on an ultimately successful campaign.

“It got to a stage after that game where we knew if we lost another game, and other results didn’t go our way, we were out.

“We had a long chat after the Somerset game, saying, ‘Look, we really need to be operating as a team. Whatever role you’re in, do it to the best of your ability, don’t worry about individual games, do it as a team’. From that point we played some very, very good T20 cricket.”

Though the next three matches were washed out – bringing some much-needed points and time for contemplation – it was the solitary Specsavers County Championship game that interrupted the T20 block, the visit to Canterbury, that proved to be the seminal moment of the season.

The hangover from the Somerset defeat looked to be continuing as Essex were bowled out for a meagre 114 in reply to Kent’s 226. However, on an extraordinary third day, Sam Cook took career-best figures of seven for 23 as Kent subsided to 40 all out and Essex won by three wickets.

“We then travelled down to Hove straight after that to play another must-win T20 game, and the atmosphere on the bus was electric,” McGrath recalls.

“The way we had turned the Kent game around, and Somerset [rivals for the Championship] looked as though they were struggling against Warwickshire, it gave everyone a lift. To then beat Sussex, who were normally very, very good at home, that was a big shot in the arm confidence-wise. Suddenly we thought, ‘We have a chance here’.”

From the Somerset thrashing onwards, Essex remained undefeated in 14 games in both red and white-ball formats while completing the Championship–T20 double.

Suddenly key performances were coming from unexpected quarters as players stepped up to the plate. “We really began playing as a team,” said McGrath.

“Jamie Porter came in when there was an injury and excelled; Shane Snater did well when he got an opportunity; Matt Quinn was leading wicket-taker before he got injured; Aron Nijjar, to bowl like he did on Finals Day on his debut; and Aaron Beard – Mohammad Amir goes home and Beardy gets to open the bowling and gets Liam Livingstone out up at the Riverside in the quarter-final.”

It was all orchestrated by Simon Harmer in his first season as captain.

“Simon took to it straight away,” says McGrath. “He made his plans pretty clear. We knew it might take a bit of time because we were moving guys around a bit, but throughout the tournament he was very clear that it would come right. And I think that shone through to the lads even when we were getting beaten.

“In addition to that Somerset game, we had also been beaten badly by Hampshire, but Simon was still sending out the same message to the guys. That’s really important as a leader.

"If it doesn’t go right, and then you’re saying a completely different thing to what you were saying a couple of days before, then guys can get confused.

“I think Simon knew what we needed to do and once we started to win you could see his confidence grow. The way he captained in the quarter-final and on Finals Day, he just got better and better. Everything he did in terms of his bowling changes, field placings and at the tosses, came off.”

With the players currently on furlough, and the timing of a return to action uncertain, McGrath says: “Everyone’s frustrated. We’d love to be playing, but it’s an opportunity just to have a reset and reflect on what we’ve done before.”