Cricket: Class puts Surrey back in the swing: Derek Pringle predicts success for a trophy-starved county cricket club

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The Independent Online
AFTER a winter of in-fighting that would have made even the hardiest of Yorkshire roses blanch, Surrey have made the kind of start for which even the more harmonious counties would have risked the odd fracas. It speaks of men in prime form. Of players, their worries behind them, all striving for a common goal: team success.

This has not always been apparent, but Surrey, who find themselves top of the County Championship table, as well as Benson and Hedges Cup semi- finalists, have shown the form that demands notice and gets players into Test sides. Curiously, though, only their captain Alec Stewart, is in the current England side at Trent Bridge. Graham Thorpe, who made big strides during the tour of the West Indies, now finds himself - as a No 6 batsman - surplus to requirements under Ray Illingworth's grand plan. Yorkshire provided two players for the Test squad, while languishing just above bottom in the Championship. Obviously, good team form does not necessarily equal good personal fortune.

The Oval has always been a rather soulless and prosaic place for visiting teams, despite recent ground developments. Unless full, it lacks the vigour or majesty to inspire a player as an empty Lord's might. With the Surrey players often doing their level best to imitate a displaced streetful of barrow boys, more noise used to emanate from the middle than it ever did from the stands. This made them a popular side to beat, if only because losing would momentarily shut them up.

Over the past 15 years Surrey have under-achieved and the trophy cabinet, while not remaining totally empty during this period, has not required the attentions of lock and key much either. True, there was a period during the late 1980s when several senior players left and the side were in transition, but earlier in the decade they had one of the most powerful line-ups in the country.

It must also be remembered that Surrey, in having Sylvester Clarke and Waqar Younis, have possessed at various times, two of county cricket's top five most lethal bowlers. With such potent spearheads at their disposal, they should have more to show than a single NatWest Trophy, won in 1982, on a pitch where winning the toss effectively meant you won the match.

Alec Stewart believes that Surrey's time is fast approaching. 'Last year was the first time I really believed we were capable of winning something,' he said. 'We started well then, but we just weren't consistent enough throughout the season to sustain it. It's early days yet. Really, we want to be smiling come early September.'

Their eye-catching form has been just the tonic for a club beset by internal problems over the winter and the last- minute unavailability - due to an appendix operation - of Waqar. Before this season, there was a growing unease among both players and members that Surrey, the County Cricket Club, was being neglected at the expense of Surrey, the Test venue.

The emphasis now is on Surrey cricket and its members. The newly revamped pavilion is evidence of that, as is the restucturing of the various committees, with Stewart being given a place on the Executive Board. On the face of it, Surrey seem destined for better times despite the acrimonious departure of Geoff Arnold, the first- team coach, a move that still irks Stewart and one or two of the senior players.

In his place are the two Grahams, Clinton, the old second- team coach, and Dilley, the ex- Kent, Worcestershire and England fast bowler. Waqar's replacement is Cameron Cuffy, the West Indian fast bowler from St Vincent. So far Cuffy has been taking time to find his substantial feet in English conditions. But once pitches harden and the ball bounces more, he could come into his own.

Overseas players aside, Surrey now have a team where more than 80 per cent of the players have come through the system, playing either for Surrey Schools or Surrey Young Cricketers. This is a feat that even Yorkshire would have been proud of, even before birthright restrictions were lifted. With batsmen such as Darren Bicknell, Stewart, Thorpe, David Ward and Alistair Brown - all home-grown products - making big scores, there have been plenty of runs to bowl at.

Not that the bowlers have needed them. With Joey Benjamin the leading wicket-taker in first-class cricket being well supported by Cuffy and Martin Bicknell, Surrey have not struggled to bowl sides out. 'The main thing,' Dilley, the bowling coach, says, 'is that most of the bowlers swing the ball. This is so important now pitches are flatter. You can still bowl sides out without having to rely on movement off the pitch.'

The other key difference this season has been the emergence of two excellent all-rounders in Adam Hollioake and Mark Butcher. Clinton explains: 'This has given us a balanced side, particularly in one- day cricket where we can use frontline bowlers, instead of having to rely on someone to do a filling-in job with the ball.' With these two coming in at six and seven respectively, Surrey have a rare depth to both their batting and their pace bowling.

Silverware has eluded Surrey for more than a decade, so Tuesday's semi-final against Warwickshire at The Oval is an important milestone. But first that man Brian Lara has to be dealt with. Every day, fresh challenges are being thrown his way, and he may just fancy the pounds 50,000 Foster's are offering the first player to hit a ball over the new pavilion roof. Surrey might settle for that, as long as it's six and out.

(Photograph omitted)