Problems at Surrey

After two seasons in Division 1, Surrey were relegated last week at Warwickshire with only a single victory to their name.  As a fan and member of this once great club, watching them this season has been a depressing experience.  The batsmen have continually failed to post competitive first-innings totals and the inability to bowl sides out twice has been very costly.  The sight of batsmen trudging back to the pavilion after yet another ill-judged dismissal for an embarrassingly low score has become all too familiar at the Oval.  Even signing three legends of the game in Graeme Smith, Ricky Ponting and Hashim Amla hasn’t saved Surrey from the drop.  The club has been guilty of a short-term attitude for quite some time and unfortunately, it has finally caught up with them.

            Since gaining promotion in 2011, Surrey have not had the easiest of rides.  The tragic death of Tom Maynard last year overshadowed the whole season.  The fact that the club avoided relegation was an achievement in itself.  Their captain at the time, Rory Hamilton-Brown took compassionate leave and many of the players’ performances were understandably adversely affected.  It was down to the leadership of spinner Gareth Batty that they managed to stay in Division 1.

Things looked up at the start of the 2013 season.  The signing of Graeme Smith as captain was a major coup and a new crop of youngsters, like Rory Burns, Zafar Ansari and Arun Harinath were finally fulfilling their potential.  Things didn’t get off to a great start.  Smith arrived with an injury and had to return to South Africa after a month.  Early draws and defeats in the County Championship put the pressure on and in mid-June, with the team still winless in the 4-day game, the coach Chris Adams was removed.  Bowling coach Stuart Barnes and Surrey legend Alec Stewart were installed as the interim management team but the change failed to arrest the inevitable slide into Division 2.  A season that had promised so much had turned in to a complete disaster.

            So what went wrong?  In the championship winning side of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Surrey had a core of home-grown talent in their prime.  Players such as Graham Thorpe, Alec Stewart, Ali Brown, the Hollioake brothers, Martin Bicknell, Mark Butcher, Alex Tudor had all come through the age-groups at Surrey and were instrumental in its success.  Imports such as Saqlain Mushtaq, Ian Salisbury and Mark Ramprakash supplemented the core group.  The present day squad is littered with old pros at the wrong end of their careers.  Gary Keedy, Zander de Bruyn, Jon Lewis, Vikram Solanki were all signed from other clubs.  Now I admit that experience is vital in any team sport (remember, you don’t win anything with kids) but some of the purchases reeked of short-termism.  Keedy was a particular bizarre signing.  He doesn’t have a particularly impressive bowling average and the team was hardly in need of another spinner given that Ansari would be available from June onwards, yet he was promptly snapped up.  Lewis was a more understandable acquisition given that he was to advise the younger crop of fast-bowlers and Solanki has performed impressively this season as the club’s leading run-scorer.  This is also not a recent phenomenon for Surrey.  In recent past they have signed Usman Afzaal, Michael Brown, Mohamed Akram, Ed Giddins and Jimmy Ormond amongst others, all of whom had pretty unsuccessful stints at the club.  The problem with these signings is that they only ever provide a quick fix.  It is not a long-term plan that will lead to a legacy of success – just temporary solution to paper over the cracks.

            Since their title-winning years, Surrey have let an alarming amount of talent leave the club.  Current England opener Michael Carberry started his career at the club but left due to limited first-team opportunities.  A similar situation led to Tim Murtagh’s departure.  He has now gone on to become one of county cricket’s most consistent seamers.  Another Middlesex seamer, Toby Roland-Jones was on Surrey’s books as a youngster but was allowed to leave.  Rikki Clarke started his career at the Oval and was at first a great success.  After a few lean years he departed for Derbyshire and is now a key component of last year’s title winners, Warwickshire.  Surrey have some very talented youngsters and they must be allowed opportunities in the first team to showcase their abilities.  If seasoned veterans are blocking their progress then the club is suffering as a whole.

            What about the future?  In some ways, relegation to Division 2 is a good thing because it forces to club to take a long, hard look at its recruitment policy.  Without the threat of relegation, Division 2 gives more opportunities for younger players to stake a claim for first team action.  Talented 18 year-old batsman Dominic Sibley (who as I write has just become the youngest double-centurion in the history of the County Championship) must be given a chance, as should promising fast bowlers George Edwards and Matthew Dunn.  They are the future of the club.  The club needs to clear out the older deadwood and start afresh with young, hungry home-grown players.  Players like de Bruyn (who thankfully has already left), Keedy and dare I say it, Batty should all be let go.  Solanki still has something to offer the team and from what I have seen this season, he still has the hunger and desire for success.  There is also the issue of what to do with Graeme Smith.  Will he really be willing to lead the county in the 2nd Division?  In the meantime, Surrey must learn the lessons of past mistakes and look to the future with a long-term strategy.

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The Ashes Squad

After two months of intense Ashes cricket, what better way to celebrate than by doing it all again?  The process all starts on Monday with the announcement of the touring party for the winter down-under.  The weeks leading up to the announcements of England squads to Australia used to be the subject of endless speculation.  In years gone by the squad always used to include one or two left-field youngsters who would go along just for the experience.  Martin Bicknell’s selection in 1990/1 was such a selection, as was Alex Tudor’s in 98/99 (although Tudor ended up playing an influential role in the series).  These days, the competition for places within the England team means there is no space for such luxury.  The selectors will pick the 17 players they think are capable of retaining the Ashes urn.  No room for any passengers.  So who will be on that flight to Australia.

Firstly, the batsmen; Alastair Cook is making his maiden voyage to Australia as captain so he’s obviously the first name on the teamsheet.  Add to that Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen and Joe Root and there are probably only two more spaces left for specialist batsmen.  Michael Carberry was mooted as a possible candidate but he seems to have done his chances more harm than good with his recent performances in the ODI’s.  I don’t think he will, but Nick Compton should go.  He has Test Match experience and can play as an opener as well as in the middle order.  I saw him play this season in the T20 quarter-final for Somerset against Surrey at the Oval.  He seemed very composed and compiled a tidy 20-odd not by slogging but by manipulating the ball around with classy touches and deflections.  He was by far the most accomplished batsman on either side that day.  I know he had a tough time earlier this summer against New Zealand but those problems were more mental than technical.

To go with Compton, Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan have also been mentioned due to their recent form in the one-day game but they have had their chances and been found wanting at Test level.  Ben Stokes could be a prudent selection.  He has been in the England limited overs squads for a couple of seasons now and has shown enough promise to be given at least an opportunity in the Test arena.  His batting stats are a bit disappointing in the four-day game this season; 563 runs at 28 apiece but his bowling is much more impressive – 40 wickets at a shade under 25.  He is still a very raw talent and to be a Test no. 6 his batting would have to improve, but he is an exciting cricketer and his performances over the past 3 seasons have warranted an opportunity with the Test squad.

The wicket-keepers pick themselves: Matthew Prior and Jonny Bairstow with the Yorkshireman just about good enough to play at no. 6 as a specialist batsman (he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory this summer however).  As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, Bairstow’s technique is looser than a wizard’s sleeve – not ideal for combatting the world’s best bowlers.  Until the England management are convinced that Bairstow has made his game more compact, the selectors should seriously consider moving Joe Root down the order to 6 and putting Compton back in to open for the first test in Brisbane.  Bairstow has become a bit of a liability in the batting order who does not put a high enough price on his wicket for my liking.

Until Monty Panesar’s ignominious fall from grace, the spinner situation was fairly simple.  Since Panesar was questioned by police in August, there have been serious question marks over Panesar’s mental capabilities.  If he is on top of his demons then he has to go because he is the second best spinner in the country, no question.  However if the England management feel he is going to be too much of a hindrance because of his off-field issues, a space becomes vacant.  Whoever is selected would most definitely be going as back-up to Graeme Swann, but with the Nottinghamshire man’s dodgy elbow, he may be called upon to play in the Tests.  I can safely say Simon Kerrigan will not be named in the touring party.  My 64 year-old father (he once took all 10 wickets in an innings) could have bowled better than the sack of shit Kerrigan served up at the Oval last month.  James Tredwell would be my choice.  He will not pull up any trees but he bowls very tight and deserves his chance after performing admirably in the one-day arena (he has a bowling average of 24.88 for England).  An outside choice would be Middlesex’s off-spinner Ollie Rayner.  I saw him bowl at the Oval last month and he took 15 wickets in the match and was nigh-on unplayable on an admittedly helpful wicket (and against some pretty dross batting).  His 6ft 5in frame makes him a very awkward customer to face and on bouncy Australian wickets, he could be a real handful.  The logical choice is Tredwell but if the selectors are feeling adventurous, Rayner could sneak in through the back door.

The seamers almost pick themselves.  James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan are certainties.  Steven Finn is pretty sure of his place despite his indifferent season and Graham Onions has had yet another stellar year and must go on the tour.  I feel sorry for Onions.  He finally made it into the England team in 2009, only to be decimated by injuries and has always been on the fringes ever since.  He has taken a hatful of wickets in the past two seasons but has never been given his chance to show what he can do.  I really hope he gets an opportunity if he is selected.  The final seamer spot would seem to be Chris Tremlett’s.  Chris Woakes rather bowled himself out of contention with an innocuous performance in the fifth test against the Aussies.  Tremlett hasn’t had a great season for Surrey and when I have seen him in the flesh, he seems to have lost a bit of zip – a result of a catalogue of injuries throughout his career.  He had a real impact on the series in 2010/11 but I doubt whether he could re-create those performances.  If Tremlett isn’t selected then Boyd Rankin would seem to be in the driving seat.  A very similar bowler to Surrey man (like Tremlett he is 6ft 7in tall), Rankin is a very awkward customer to face.  The pace and bounce of the Australian wickets will most definitely suit his style of bowling.  The only drawback to his selection would be his lack of experience in Test Cricket.  He has played over 40 ODI’s, both for Ireland and England with great success but that is nothing compared to the intensity of an Ashes Test.  He would represent a very progressive selection.

No-one else has stood out this season in the county game.  Toby Roland-Jones was bandied about at the start of the season as a potential England bowler but injury has ruined his season and at 25 years of age, he still has time on his side.  Sussex’s Chris Jordan has had a wonderful season with both bat and ball since his move from Surrey. 50 wickets and a batting average of 25 is a very impressive return and his form was rewarded with a place in England’s one-day squad.  The Test touring party may be a step too far for him but he is certainly one to watch for the future.

So after much deliberation, my touring party would be as follows:

Cook

Compton

Root

Trott

Pietersen

Bell

Stokes

Bairstow

Prior

Swann

Panesar

Anderson

Broad

Bresnan

Onions

Finn

Tremlett

I’m pretty sure the 17 names on the above list would have more than enough to overcome Australia.  England aren’t at the peak of their powers by any stretch of the imagination, but the Aussies, especially with star fast-bowler Ryan Harris’ fitness doubtful for the series opener, aren’t in much better shape.  There’s even talk of bringing scattergun Mitchell Johnson back into the team.  If this is indeed the case, England are almost certain of returning to Blighty with the little urn in hand.