Cricket: Surrey win title but few friends

Ruthless edge to champions' play earns success which exposes lack of true competition.
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The Independent Online
SURREY MAY be deserved winners of the County Championship, but they will not be popular ones. Ever since their 1950s heyday, when they won seven in a row, the chocolate caps of Kennington have been known for their abrasive play and behaviour. This season has been no different, but, with the English first-class game increasingly ridiculed, why win friends when you can win matches?

This they have done with clinical efficiency and an Aussie-style ruthlessness, qualities that betray not so much the antipodean roots of their captain, Adam Hollioake, as an ingrained hardness that has long clung to those who frequent this unlovely part of London, with its stained gasometers and decaying brickwork.

Like Leicestershire last year, the pennant has become theirs without the loss of a single match. Extraordinary, then, that not since 1973 when Hampshire won the title, successive champions should achieve the feat in successive years and one that is surely a sign that the competition is becoming less rigorous.

Ignoring the National League to the extent that they currently languish at the bottom of the Second Division has also helped Surrey to maintain focus as well as rest key players. If some find that unacceptable, it is a tactic more will use in the future as the fixture list expands and county staffing levels shrink.

If these are the broad reasons for Surrey's dominance, closer examination reveals others. Indeed, opponents - as opposed to opposition, of which there has not been much - speak of the mystery and mastery of Saqlain Mushtaq as being the dominant factor in the county's success.

This time last season, Surrey's challenge fell away after Saqlain was recalled by Pakistan and, after being in contention, they finished fifth.

Not so in 1999, and since the World Cup final in late June, Saqlain has taken 54 wickets from seven matches at an average of just over 10.

It is an extraordinary feat and his off-spinners, with their bewildering variation, have given Hollioake both a torture chamber as well as a rapier with which to dispatch his victims.

Saqlain's wickets are by no means the whole story, though by taking five wickets in an innings on seven occasions, they are the main reason why Surrey have accelerated away from the rest of the field to make this the biggest foregone conclusion since Essex took the 1979 pennant home in early August.

Playing mainly on dry, used pitches at home has assisted Saqlain as well as Ian Salisbury, whose wrist spin has contributed 50 wickets at an average of around 20. Perhaps more illuminating, and a statistic that confirms the view that most county batsmen are clueless against spinners who get some purchase, is that both have conceded around 2.3 runs per over.

Considering that Salisbury's international career is felt to have been blighted by his propensity to bowl at least one "four" ball an over, it is a damning fact. Either he has improved out of sight (in which case he should be in the Test team) or batting standards have declined, along with just about everything else except fielding.

Away from SE11, where grass has generally been left on the pitch to counter the pair, Martin Bicknell has ably kept them in the hunt, mostly with the ball but, as he showed with a fighting 67 against Sussex, occasionally with bat. Since Alex Tudor's absence from early July onwards someone has needed to though, unusually for a seamer with 59 wickets, Bicknell, missing at present through injury, has yet to take five wickets in an innings.

Considering that three of their top six batsmen have missed 18 matches between them, and that their captain was missing for a month during the World Cup, they have made good losses that would have sunk most other sides.

Instead of bemoaning their fate, as those teams heading for the Second Division are bound to do, Surrey have prospered through Alistair Brown and the 26-year old opener, Ian Ward, whose highest score before this season was 81.

Mark Butcher, who led them with distinction when the captain was away, batted with an authority that eluded him in the Test matches. When he played, Graham Thorpe also dominated, setting up important wins against Hampshire and Northamptonshire with commanding centuries.

By contrast Alec Stewart made modest contributions with the bat, while Hollioake Snr will not remember this season for anything but his captaincy, which considering his own poor form, has been upbeat and positive.

It would be gratifying to report that Surrey's Championship win, their first since 1971, also sparked a marked improvement in Hollioake Jnr. Sadly, despite his first five-wicket haul, Ben Hollioake's tally of 20 wickets for an average of 37.7 and 468 runs at 26.0 do not suggest an all-rounder of class. He may improve, but while the Championship tends to tire rather than inspire, mediocrity will be the winner.

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