Surrey's old hands fight against dying of the light

Relegation looms for the most successful side of the last 10 years and the break-up of an ageing squad of stars is inevitable, writes Angus Fraser
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The Independent Online

For a Premier League football club that had just spent £25m upgrading its ground the prospect of relegation to a lower division would be a nightmare. But cricket is not like football, and the magnificent new OCS Stand at the Oval was built to raise the capacity and improve facilities for international matches, not poorly attended domestic cricket.

In order stay among the élite Surrey need to beat Middlesex in their final County Championship match of the season, and they need to beat them well. If Surrey escape relegation it will be at Middlesex's expense, and the "Brown Hatters" need to collect 15 more points than their arch rivals in the four-day game which starts today at the Oval.

There are may reasons for the decline of one of English cricket's biggest and most prestigious counties. Surrey's pre-season preparations were undermined when it became evident that Mark Butcher, the Surrey captain, would miss a considerable chunk of the summer with a wrist injury he picked up on England's tour of South Africa.

The loss of Butcher would have done little to raise the morale of the team, and Surrey have looked an unhappy side, preoccupied with internal issues, for the majority of the season. The coach, Steve Rixon, announced in early August that he would not be returning in 2006, and it is believed his style of management has not gone down very well in the Surrey dressing-room.

Yet despite these factors it is still possible for Surrey to stay up. Middlesex's recent form has been equally fragile, and all Surrey need to do is bowl out their north London opponents for under 250, score 500 and then dismiss them again. It will not be easy but Surrey have the players capable of pulling it off.

Yet the same was said about Australia throughout the summer. We all turned up to each Test expecting the real Australia to exit the pavilion but time and time again they failed to perform. And in many ways the fortunes of Australia, and the challenges they now face, mirror those of an ageing Surrey squad.

Surrey have been the strongest and most successful side for a decade, winning nine trophies in nine seasons and supplying England with more than a dozen players. They were a decent outfit before they won the National Cricket League in 1996 but the side contained several players with inflated egos and they generally underachieved.

Adam Hollioake changed all that when he became captain in 1997. Hollioake broke the cliques, stopped the back-stabbing and turned Surrey into a happy, winning team. Adam, understandably, lost interest in cricket when his brother, Ben, was tragically killed in a car crash during the winter of 2001-02. Ben's death spurred the team on to win the County Championship in 2002, but Adam drifted away from the game and back to his family in Perth.

Along with his brother, Hollioake had Alec Stewart, Graham Thorpe - who has been left out of the side to face Middlesex, so has played his last match for the county - Martin Bicknell, Mark Butcher, Ian Salisbury, Alistair Brown and Pakistan's Saqlain Mushtaq when they were at their best, and his departure coincided with their decline. Jon Batty and Mark Butcher have tried to rejuvenate old bodies but their efforts have proved unsuccessful.

What is taking place at the Oval happened to the Middlesex side I played for in the late Eighties and early Nineties, and the great Essex team of the Eighties.

In county cricket good teams are formed as much through luck as judgement. The chances of producing a successful side increase when a good structure is in place and there are hundreds of youngsters who want to become the next Andrew Flintoff. But good fortune dictates that a group of talented and ambitious young players gather at a club at the same time.

Once there the group get on, have the same interests and become good friends away from work, and this helps develop an excellent team spirit. But, secretly, they are competing with each other. They all want to be the stars of the side, play for England and receive the associated financial rewards. The desire to be successful, and the envious glances at mates when they go off to represent their country, make those left behind more determined. As a consequence they work harder and improve.

Success is not inevitable but if it arrives the same group of players stick together and go on to win trophies for a considerable period of time. It may sound ridiculous but a team of 11 excellent 24 to 28-year-olds creates problems further down the line, because opportunities for aspiring youngsters are limited, and it can cause a club to lose a generation of players.

The problems arise when the team gets old together. By now each of the players is earning good money and they all want to play for as long as possible. The team, inevitably, becomes a collection of old players hanging on for one last pay day, plus youngsters with little experience.

Surrey, like Lancashire and Yorkshire, who have been promoted from the Second Division, have too good a set-up to be among the also-rans for too long, but they have some important decisions to make this autumn. They start with the players, and a few contracts need to terminated if they wish to return to the top.

Surrey (from): M A Butcher (capt), S A Newman, M R Ramprakash, A D Brown, R Clarke, J N Batty (wkt), Azhar Mahmood, T Murtagh, I D K Salisbury, M Akram, N Doshi, Saqlain Mushtaq, J W Dernbach.

Middlesex (from): B L Hutton (capt), E T Smith, O A Shah, S B Styris, E C Joyce, J W M Dalrymple, P N Weekes, B J M Scott (wkt), P N Trego, Y Golwalkar, M M Ali, E J G Morgan.