Essex ready to rumble with the big boys

Ryan ten Doeschate led Essex up after six seasons in Division Two Getty Images

Last season:
Championship: 1st Div 2; NatWest Blast: QF; Royal London Cup: QF
In: Varun Chopra (Warwickshire), Adam Wheater (Hampshire), Simon Harmer (Kolpak)
Out: Graham Napier, David Masters (both retired), Jaik Mickleburgh, Tom Moore (both released)
Overseas: Neil Wagner (NZ, April-June), Mohammad Amir (Pak, June September)

2016 in a nutshell
Chris Silverwood dared Essex to dream last season and they duly delivered. A longed-for promotion, secured in Silverwood's first season in charge, ended a painful run of near misses and means Division One cricket will return to Chelmsford for the first time in seven years. With only one team due to go up, Essex cruised to the title on the contributions of a heavyweight top order - Tom Westley, Ryan ten Doeschate and Nick Browne all passed 1000 runs - and the red-ball firepower of Graham Napier, David Masters and Jamie Porter, who shared 158 wickets; only Kent came close to knocking them off course before falling at the penultimate hurdle. There was, however, familiar disappointment in the limited-overs competitions, with a pair of quarter-final defeats for the third year in a row.

2017 prospects
Three times have Essex been promoted in the two-division era, and three times have they slid straight back down. In the new, streamlined top tier, where only six teams will be safe, the challenge looks even greater - particularly when you factor in the retirements of Napier and Masters. The overseas recruitment seems shrewd, however, with Neil Wagner (who had a successful spell with Lancashire last year) and Mohammad Amir splitting the season as attack spearhead, while South Africa's Simon Harmer will strengthen the spin bowling after signing on a Kolpak deal. The availability of Alastair Cook, a little lighter for having given up the Test captaincy, for up to eight Championship matches before England take on South Africa could also be significant. Chelmsford will be disappointed if a T20 challenge does not emanate, too.

In charge
Silverwood made the perfect start to life as head coach, having been promoted from assistant to succeed Paul Grayson. He spent part of the winter seconded to the Lions on their tour of Sri Lanka - gaining a positive reference from former Essex player and England team director Andy Flower - before returning to begin pre-season preparations for what, in musical terms, may turn out to be the "difficult second album". Ten Doeschate, meanwhile, seemed to grow with the added responsibility of captaincy and this year he will take charge in all formats (Ravi Bopara relinquishing the job in white-ball cricket to focus on his own game), giving Essex a proven leadership combo to try and steer the course.

Key player
Nobody scored more Championship runs for Essex in 2016 than Westley's 1217, which included a career-best 254 against Worcestershire as his team rumbled imperiously towards the title in September; he also led the charts in the Blast, showing how important his wristy strokeplay is across all formats. After a winter of impressive performances with the Lions, Westley will be hoping that Division One runs (without the asterisk attached to those in the second tier) can help make Trevor Bayliss and the England selectors finally take notice. At the age of 28, this could be a pivotal campaign for his chances of winning a cap.

Bright young thing
When Napier was mulling his impending retirement and the challenge for Essex in replacing him, the first name on his lips was that of Aaron Beard - a teenage fast bowler who had taken to calling the 36-year-old allrounder "Dad". Beard made a fleeting appearance as a substitute fielder when England played Essex in a warm-up match before the 2013 Ashes but he will be expected to play a more central role this summer. Slight and skiddy, he rattled Sri Lanka on debut last year, with five wickets in the match, and has been a regular with England Under-19s but probably needs a few more sessions in the gym before he can flex a bicep to Napier.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
Essex have a formidable cadre of homegrown batsmen - Varun Chopra, Dan Lawrence, Adam Wheater and Bopara should compete for spots alongside Cook, Westley and Browne - and will hope that big totals, coupled with spells from the indefatigable Wagner and incisive Amir, will turn enough matches their way. Still, Division One takes no prisoners and a battle for survival against better-resourced opposition surely awaits. If they can stay up for the first time and pull off a run at one of the limited-overs trophies, then Chelmsford will surely garland Silverwood once again.

Bet365 odds: LV= Championship: 20-1; NatWest Blast 12-1; Royal London Cup 14-1