Cricket: Surrey's winning squad ethic

Stewart and Co may have been away with England but their replacements have done cricket's Championship leaders proud. By David Llewellyn
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The Independent Online
THE REMARKABLE thing about Surrey's summer is not that they are top of the Championship, nor the fact that they have stayed there, setting the pace virtually from the outset, but rather who has kept them there. Because it has not been the household names who have been doing all the hard work this summer.

When Alec Stewart, Graham Thorpe, Mark Butcher, Ian Salisbury, Alistair Brown, Adam Hollioake and his brother Ben and have all gone off to do their bit for Queen, Lord MacLaurin and country, Surrey have had to turn to their volunteer reserve force for some sterling work in maintaining the Championship challenge.

It has not just been England calls which have decimated the squad either - injuries have taxed Surrey's staffing levels too. Thorpe joined the casualty list halfway through the season and was ruled out for the rest of it, joining the opening batsman Darren Bicknell, who did not even start it. And latterly Alex Tudor and Ben Hollioake have also been laid up.

For each enforced absence - and the club has had to cope with a minimum of three England calls plus a couple of injuries at any one time this year - players have had to be found who were capable and competent enough to step into the breach. More than that, though, there has to be a confidence in the side that allows the stand-ins to step in at a moment's notice and just perform. Equally, the regulars remaining in the team have to have faith in the understudies' abilities and, more importantly, communicate that faith to the in-comers.

As proud as each and every one of their internationals must have felt as they have waltzed off to represent their country, there is no doubt that they will have cast more than one anxious glance over their shoulder wondering whether Surrey can manage without them.

The answer, almost every time, has been that they could. So who are these brave few? These stalwarts on whom a county relies in time of need? They are men whose names should be carved into the walls of the Surrey pavilion should Hollioake and his men win the County Championship for the first time since Micky Stewart, now their president, led Surrey to the title in 1971.

The names of Jason Ratcliffe, Nadeem Shahid, Ian Ward and Joey Benjamin do not exactly get autograph hunters salivating and licking their pencils, but what they have achieved in the absence of the big guns is quite something. Runs and wickets have been the name of their game.

The figures speak for themselves. Ratcliffe has made 449 runs at 32.07, with a hundred and two half-centuries; Shahid, 576 runs at 41.14, with two hundreds and three fifties; Ward, 498 at 33.20, with five half-centuries. Benjamin has provided critical support for Martin Bicknell, the strike bowler, from time to time - and took five crucial wickets when a depleted Surrey beat Nottinghamshire last time out.

Of the regulars, Bicknell goes into today's match against Yorkshire with 60 wickets (average 18.26) in the Championship, Saqlain Mushtaq's off- spin has put him third in the averages with 63 wickets at 16.66 apiece. Ben Hollioake, too, has started to come good with the ball. Brown has led the way with the bat, scoring four hundreds and five half-centuries to bring himself within sight of his 1,000 for the summer - 964 at 60.25.

It has taken some time but it is beginning to look as if Surrey have finally got it together, in the truest sense of the word. "We are made to feel appreciated by Surrey," admitted Ratcliffe, who is in his fourth season at The Oval after leaving his native Warwickshire at the end of the 1994 season. "None of us is happy with our situation," he continued, alluding to the fact that the "reserves" would rather be automatic first choices. "But, to be fair, to Surrey they look after us well. We are made to feel we belong.

"It is hard to be in, then out of the side, and when we are in to be expected to perform, but we are giving everything to the cause."

It is the squad ethic - something that the English, and possibly even the British, find hard to get their heads around. Alec Stewart, as captain of England, did something that suggested he is aware of the concept of squad.

After England had clinched the Test series over South Africa at Headingley, one of the first things Stewart did was to ring Thorpe and Glamorgan's Robert Croft, both of whom had played three matches in the series. "You win and lose together in the squad," Stewart said. "That is what Surrey have, a strength in depth in terms of talent and a lot of unsung heroes on whom you know you can rely when you need them. Surrey's present position can be put down to a real club effort."

Another man, watching from a distance these days, who is not surprised at what Surrey are achieving is David Gilbert, now Sussex's deputy chief executive and director of cricket, but last year the cricket manager at The Oval. It would be a churlish and a curmudgeonly person who would deny Gilbert some of the credit for Surrey's success this year.

Gilbert is too modest even to hint at it, but he admitted: "I'm not surprised that they are where they are, nor that they can withstand the loss of so many talented players at critical times and still win. If ever a competition was created for the squad system, then it has to be the County Championship. And the squad system has to be there for a team like Surrey, with all their international players."

When Gilbert arrived at The Oval in 1995 he inherited a lot of egos in one basket. Hugely talented individuals, granted, but equally, blessed (or cursed) with large dollops of character as well. There was every likelihood that the fine dividing line between self-belief and arrogance was overstepped frequently within the squad. Managing that little lot was no picnic.

When you have so many egos there is likely to be a crushing disappointment. That had certainly been the case with Surrey. Crammed with an obscenely large number of gifted individuals, they had begun their last half-dozen seasons with great expectations and vaulting ambition. True to form they overstretched themselves and fell.

However, two years later under the delicate man-management skills of Gilbert they had won two trophies, one in each season, and they had signed the brilliant Pakistan Test off-spinner, Saqlain, at Gilbert's insistence. Probably most important of all, they had developed a squad ethic. They had learned how to bond, how to be a collective. At which point Gilbert left.

He knows enough about the squad to be able to evaluate the principle causes of their overdue success. "First, I think Saqlain Mushtaq has been crucial in what Surrey have been achieving," he said. "With him bowling in tandem with the leg-spinner Ian Salisbury there will be sides dreading playing at The Oval in August and September. A bit like when sides were reticent, although for reasons of personal safety, about visiting The Oval when the fast bowlers Sylvester Clarke and Tony Gray were performing.

"These days the pitches at The Oval are not the hard bouncy ones of days gone by. They suit spin these days. Championship-winning sides in the past have had spin twins. Middlesex had Emburey and Edmonds, Essex had Such and Childs and Surrey in the 1950s had Laker and Lock. In the late 1990s they have Saqlain and Salisbury.

"Another factor in the Surrey success has to be the guys such as Martin Bicknell, who is bowling better these days than at any time in his career. I wonder how long England can go on ignoring him. It's about time they forgave him for his early-career injury problems.

"Then there is the fact that they can call on so many talented players who cannot command a regular first-team place and those guys then perform. They also have a good manager in Keith Medlycott, an old Surrey player who understands that special togetherness of the club and has ensured it has not been lost with all the injuries and international calls. It all boils down to them having a good squad set-up." Surrey's prospects are clearly in good hands.

Championship Top Five

P W L D Bat Bwl Tot

Surrey 14 9 3 2 35 50 235

Leics 14 8 0 6 35 39 220

Lancs 14 8 1 5 25 44 212

Gloucs 14 8 5 1 18 53 202

Yorkshire 14 6 3 5 39 51 201

Remaining fixtures

Surrey

Today: Yorkshire (Headingley). 9 Sept: Durham (Chester-le-Street). 17 Sept: Leicestershire (The Oval).

Leicestershire

Today: Warwickshire (Edgbaston). 9 Sept: Essex (Leicester). 17 Sept: Surrey (The Oval).

Lancashire

Today: Derbyshire (Old Trafford). 11 Sept: Nottinghamshire (Trent Bridge). 17 Sept: Hampshire (Old Trafford).

Gloucestershire

Today: Northamptonshire (Bristol). 9 Sept: Middlesex (Lord's). 17 Sept: Nottinghamshire (Trent Bridge).

Yorkshire

Today: Surrey (Headingley). 9 Sept: Warwickshire (Headingley). 17 Sept: Sussex (Hove).

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