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.