Alastair Cook may have recently given up the Test captaincy but in the familiar surroundings of Chelmsford’s County Ground it was perhaps reassuring he was still the centre of attention at Essex’s pre-season media day.
However, the stakes this year are far higher. For starters his county will be competing in Division One of the County Championship for the first time in seven years.
For England, too, a big few months awaits in Test cricket under the new leadership of Joe Root.
Cook, who will be absorbed back into the ranks for the first series of the summer against South Africa starting in July, knows how important it is for him to shake off the disappointment of losing the Test captaincy and start scoring big runs for Essex and then England.
But the only disappointment shown by Cook at his home ground was the fact that the final phase of his playing career has suffered a false start after he confirmed a hip injury will rule him out of the marquee fixture in the first round of Championship games – Essex v Lancashire.
The headline duel in that match was supposed to be Cook versus James Anderson.
England will hope both players, respectively their record Test run-scorer and wicket-taker, will be fit enough not only to perform throughout the home Test summer, which includes four matches against South Africa and three more against West Indies, but also the Ashes series in Australia that follows in the winter.
Cook, who is confident he will be fit for Essex’s second Championship match against Somerset at Taunton next week, said: “I’ve got a sore hip which is not getting right so I’m going to go for a different bit of treatment and hopefully it’ll be alright for the Somerset game if things go well.
“The first Test isn’t until July but ultimately the hip’s not quite right so it needs to get right before you can play. It’s been going for a month or so now so it’s frustrating.
“I’m just a bit disappointed because it’s the first game in the First Division and it’s important for Essex to get off to a good start. “I’ve been hitting the ball pretty well actually but it is what it is. Unfortunately the battle with Jimmy is no longer so bragging rights for the summer will have to go on the back burner. He’ll be telling me I’ve ducked the challenge.”
Both Cook and Anderson will be pivotal figures as England look to rise to the challenge of delivering on their vast promise as a Test side over the next 10 months.
When he gave up the Test captaincy in February, Cook admitted England had “stagnated” under his leadership in 2016. It is a sentiment echoed in the latest edition of Wisden, released on Thursday, in which editor Lawrence Booth says England, beaten 4-0 in India before Christmas, have “failed” over the past year.
Ultimately they will be judged on the result of next winter’s Ashes series, but a South Africa side who won in Australia last December will provide a stern examination this summer.
“It’ll be a good marker for us as a side,” said Cook. “South Africa went down and beat Australia in Australia and people are already talking about the Ashes. Clearly as players you can’t focus too far ahead because there’s a lot of cricket before then. But it’s exciting.”
As for coming back into the England dressing-room under the captaincy of Root after four-and-a-half years leading the team, Cook remains relaxed.
“At the moment it hasn’t really changed,” he said. “The big difference will be in July, that first Test, but ultimately it’ll be fine. A lot of people will talk about it because it’s an easy story but it’ll be absolutely fine and I hope to score enough runs to be selected.”
That last point is telling. Cook obviously feels he no longer warrants an automatic place after giving up the captaincy and the emergence of top-order talents in Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings during the India Test series may well spur Cook on to mark his territory with a torrent of runs in the early months of the county summer.
That will be good news for Essex, who despite missing Cook for their first match back in Division One since 2010 on Friday, are hopeful they can excel in the top-tier of English cricket this season.
As well as Cook, Essex have a wealth of batting talent that includes England hopefuls Tom Westley and Nick Browne, 20-year-old starlet Dan Lawrence and old stagers in captain Ryan Ten Doeschate, Ravi Bopara and James Foster.
There is also the intriguing subplot of Mohammed Amir, the Pakistan fast bowler banned for spot-fixing against England at Lord’s in 2010, coming in midway through the season to replace New Zealand’s Neil Wagner as Essex’s overseas player.
“It’ll be interesting,” said Cook. “It will be tough with two out of eight teams going down and historically the Second Division teams coming up have found it hard.
“Clearly people will expect us to go down but if we can play some good cricket early on things can change very quickly.”