Cricket: Surrey poised to make strength tell

The County Championship title has not gone to The Oval since 1971, but the signs suggest the long wait may soon be over.
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AROUND THIS time last season, after years of underachievement in the County Championship, it finally looked as though the unrivalled strength of Surrey's playing staff was about to take its toll on the rest. Having led since May, they reached the end of August in pole position.

But after defeats by Yorkshire and, in their final match, Leicestershire, Surrey finished only fifth while the unfancied Foxes made off with the title for the second time in three years. Now, with five games to go, starting at Hove today, Surrey find themselves leading once more but they might be forgiven for feeling just a trifle apprehensive.

Fortunately for Surrey, and despite the disappointment of Saturday's NatWest Trophy semi-final defeat by Somerset, there are a couple of big differences this time around. For a start, although Leicestershire are still their closest pursuers, their 41-point lead is considerably more than they had at any time last year and, secondly, as their cricket manager, Keith Medlycott, points out, the title last year was as much won by Leicestershire, who had games in hand, as lost by Surrey.

"We won five of our last seven games last season, and the sides that finished above us won seven out of seven which is fantastic," Medlycott said. "This year we've played the same number of games as everyone else and we've got a lead again. We know the finishing post isn't too far away, but we have to stay calm and keep backing our own performances."

Medlycott took over at The Oval from the Australian Brad Gilbert at the start of last season. But although the up-turn in Surrey's four-day fortunes coincided very much with his arrival, Medlycott says the seeds for potential success were at least partially sown by Gilbert, who steered Surrey to one-day success in the Sunday League and Benson and Hedges Cup in successive summers.

"There's a real belief here now and that comes from winning those trophies," Medlycott said. "Having tasted the silverware we really are desperate for more, and the whole club is based around trying to win the Championship."

In the recent past Surrey have always had top quality players but, owing to regular call-ups to the England squad, their basic strength has also been their greatest weakness. One of the players most regularly absent on Test duty, as he will be again this week, is Graham Thorpe, but he believes Surrey are finally coming to terms with the problem.

"I think we've learnt to cope with that this season," Thorpe said. "The guys have just accepted it and we're no longer using it as an excuse. If we want to win things we have to cope with that, and it could be the way for a few more years yet. It's no longer a case of having a first team and a second team but having a squad, and those who have played regularly in the championship this season have played really well."

Oddly, perhaps, for a side with so many internationals, it has been a genuine team effort that has guided Surrey to the top this season, with batsmen like Ally Brown, Ian Ward and Darren Bicknell complementing the bowling contributions from Martin Bicknell, Alex Tudor, before he was injured, and the two spinners, Ian Salisbury and Saqlain Mushtaq, who have taken nearly 100 wickets between them.

Thorpe, though, is happy to single out the Pakistani off-spinner for special praise. "Saqlain's a world-class spin bowler and in the second half of the season you need that," he said. "He's slotted in fantastically well, especially after his disappointment with Pakistan in the World Cup final. Everyone likes him and he's a massive asset to the club."

As far as the championship in general is concerned, with sides jostling for position ahead of next year's split into two divisions, Medlycott believes it has been a vintage season. "The majority of our games have gone very much into the fourth day, which suggests sides are trying harder," he said. "They are valuing their wickets more and it's a real dog-fight.

"I think it's been a cracking season for members all over the country and hopefully it will breed better cricketers. My only concern now, going into the last month, is what sort of wickets we'll get and how far people will go to ensure they get a result. Damp wickets won't help us produce better cricketers."

Thorpe shares his manager's concern: "I don't think anyone wants to be in division two of anything, but we have to have good pitches and I think groundsmen should be left to prepare them without any interference from the clubs," he said. "At the moment maybe people are just trying to produce result wickets to make sure they get into the first division, but in the end we are pulling our overall standard down."

But all other things being equal, not even the state of the pitches they find should be enough to prevent the chocolate caps from hoisting the Championship pennant for the first time - their last title was in 1971, a year before the pennant was introduced. And who knows, perhaps the first decade of the new millennium will even bear a striking resemblance to Surrey's halcyon days of the 1950s.