Collective effort key to Surrey success

Team spirit and Saqlain's sorcery have retained cricket's County Championship

All hail Surrey, who have retained the County Championship they won last season. If Adam Hollioake's team are not yet the omnipotent force of their Brylcreemed predecessors in the Fifties, who won the coveted pennant seven consecutive times, their triumph in a competition made more rigorous by last year's split into two divisions means they are clearly the best four-day side in the land.

All hail Surrey, who have retained the County Championship they won last season. If Adam Hollioake's team are not yet the omnipotent force of their Brylcreemed predecessors in the Fifties, who won the coveted pennant seven consecutive times, their triumph in a competition made more rigorous by last year's split into two divisions means they are clearly the best four-day side in the land.

In a season where central contracts have effectively removed the best dozen players from the overall equation, their success is probably a function of the amount of players they have, or have had, about the fringes of an England side. Ian Salisbury, Mark Butcher, Alex Tudor, Alistair Brown and Adam and Ben Hollioake have all played international cricket in the last four years, while Martin Bicknell perennially gets a mention whenever an England bowler goes lame.

With all but Hollioake junior making telling and consistent contributions, it has been a truly collective effort. Indeed, only Saqlain Mushtaq, their Pakistani off-spinner, can fairly be singled out for special mention, but then as England's batsmen will find out this winter, he is a very special bowler. His 66 wickets cost just 15.4 runs apiece, otherwise, the runs and wickets, the daily bread of successful sides, have been evenly shared around.

Such egalitarian means of production is rare in sport, even in team games. But despite rumours that some players are seeking to move county, spirit in the camp has been high, a testament to the skilful and maturing captaincy of Adam Hollioake, whose judgement of the line between risk and reward has become ever more canny as the season has worn on.

This year, Surrey did not taste victory until their fifth match and then only just, when they pipped Hampshire by two runs. Meanwhile, their only two losses to date, were sustained against Derbyshire and Durham, two sides about to be relegated to the second Division. Both occurred in the first six weeks of the season, when inclement weather tended to make batting a lottery and Derbyshire were docked eight points for the pitch they beat them on back in early June.

"Every game has been much more keenly fought than when I first started playing," said Hollioake, an observation that will please those at the England and Wales Cricket Board, who fought tooth and nail to get a two divisional Championship accepted. "Last year we played some sides who were clearly out of it and it was just a case of turning up and winning. But there have been far fewer games like that this time."

But if the competition has got tougher, Hollioake believes Surrey's achievements are due to a maturing work force. "The same players getting better and knowing how to win," is how he puts it.

Looking at how the bonus points have worked out - 40 from a possible 60 for batting and 41 from a possible 44 for bowling - it is obvious they have a bowling attack for all conditions and situations. Apart from staying fit, the four main bowlers, Bicknell, Tudor, Saqlain and Salisbury, have taken just over 220 wickets between them.

As well as providing important runs down the order, the opening pair of Tudor and Bicknell has combined pace and steepling bounce from one end, with accuracy and subtle movement from the other. In any other year, Tudor's form would have got him a run in the Test side and providing improvements continue to be made, his time will surely come again.

As ever, Bicknell has been consistency itself, his regular drip of wickets embellished with the occasional bout of over-indulgence. In the match against Leicestershire at Guildford, Bicknell had figures of 16 for 119.

They were the best by an England qualified bowler since that other Surrey stalwart, Jim Laker, took 19 for 90 against the Aussies at Old Trafford in 1956.

What the new ball did not claim the spin of Saqlain and Salisbury surely did. Often bowling in tandem, the pair fed off one another and dove-tailed perfectly. Of course, most English batsmen cannot play spin for toffee these days and Salisbury's true worth will be measured on this winter's tour of Pakistan, when Saqlain's sorcery is on the other side, rather than at the other end.

The batting, less consistent than the bowling, has revolved mainly around Brown, Butcher and Ian Ward, who will surely find himself West Indies bound when the England A team is announced next Monday. At the time of retaining the title, none had posted 1,000 runs for the season, but in a bowler-friendly summer there is no disgrace in that.

It was during a purple patch in the first two weeks of July that Brown lit Surrey's fuse by hitting an unbeaten 295 against Leicestershire and an undefeated 140 against Yorkshire, two teams ahead of them in the table at the time. Both matches were won by huge margins which, apart from demoralising their closest rivals, signalled the moment Surrey went top, a position that has never since been threatened.

All silver linings have dark clouds though and with the likes of Alec Stewart and Graham Thorpe managing just a handful of games between them because of England duty, it should really have been the season when Ben Hollioake, a Test player two seasons ago, emerged as a cricketer of real substance.

Instead the comfort zone of playing in a side few others managed to run close once pitches dried out, means that he remains a player of promise rather than performance. In fact, as things stand, he offers little more than being Surrey's lucky mascot, and would surely be better off moving to another county. Only by seeking greater responsibility, and a leading role, will he, or anyone else, discover the true extent of his talent.

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