ESSEX must rebuild Fortress Chelmsford to its former glory if they are to overcome the blips of the last two seasons and re-establish themselves as the dominant force in domestic cricket, believes head coach Anthony McGrath.

Essex were the leading county in three of the four seasons following their return in 2017 to Division One of the LV= Insurance County Championship, but only finished fourth last season after ending up in the second tier of the experimental three-conference mid-Covid set-up in 2021.

“Yes, it is fair to say we’ve had a bit of a blip,” admits McGrath.

“I think we have stagnated in red-ball cricket.

“We won seven games last year – which most teams would say is a great effort; 50 per cent – but given our high standards we were slightly off it.

“When we’ve been successful in the past we’ve had first-innings leads with the bat or bowled teams out cheaply.

"But we didn’t manage to do that consistently enough.

"Our home form was an issue: we had four draws here [against Kent, Northamptonshire, Yorkshire and Somerset] and they never looked like being results.

“Couple that with the low number of batting points we gained and that is probably the difference between finishing fourth in the division and top.

“We want to try and get back to being successful at home. A lot of the games last year we were playing catch-up. It is about starting well, being on the front foot and getting in charge of the game early doors.”

One problem was that the Chelmsford wicket, particularly in the first month of the season, was lifeless and tipped the balance in favour of bat over ball: there were five individual centuries recorded in the opening game against Kent, for example.

“We always ask for the same wicket,” says McGrath.

“A wicket that has got pace and carry and then will turn later in the game – because we’ve got Simon Harmer.

"I think we will see more results wickets that are equal for bat and ball this season.

"Having said that, the best teams find a way to win on any surface, so whatever we come across, home or away, we’ve got to find a solution to win that game.

“We’ve come across flat wickets before. I remember going to Trent Bridge in 2019 when we bowled them out cheaply, scored 500-plus and bowled them out again.

"So we can win on flat tracks, it’s just about being a bit braver with the bat, accelerating quickly, declaring earlier, being imaginative with field positions etc. That’s really down to playing better individually and collectively.”

Before they can get their own house in order, however, Essex attempt to storm Middlesex’s citadel when the 2023 season gets underway at Lord’s on Thursday.

They will do so without the services of a second overseas player as New Zealand all-rounder Doug Bracewell does not arrive for his 10-game stint until next week’s Chelmsford opener against Lancashire.

The experienced Test seamer was only drafted into the squad at the end of last week when the promising Australian, Will Sutherland, was forced to withdraw with a back injury.

It all happened very quickly, and McGrath said: “With these kind of things you have to do some planning.

"These days the analysis and stats we have on every single player means we have lists of guys we are keeping an eye on.

"When Will pulled out, Doug was one of those on our radar.

"We wanted someone in a similar mould who could bowl and bat around that seven or eight position.

“Dougie has got vast international experience, he’s got a really good first-class record, he’s still playing Test cricket, and the conditions in New Zealand are similar to here so he will add great value.”

At 23, Sutherland is almost a decade younger than Bracewell, and Essex will keep tabs on him while he recovers.

“He’s still young enough and he’s someone we think is going to be a fantastic cricketer,” said McGrath.

“We felt he was someone we could build a relationship with and hopefully get back again and again.

"We’ll see how he comes back from the injury.”