The man to put the strut back in Surrey

Fallen champions entice Rixon from his New South Wales comfort zone to help relight the fires at The Oval
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The Independent Online

It is early April at The Oval. The sun shines brightly but the wind is biting, and the Surrey squad pile on sweaters and tracksuits to perform their stretches. When they chase back to the warmth of the dressing room, two men stay in the middle. One paddles a tennis ball to the reserve keeper. He is wearing shorts. He can't be English.

It is early April at The Oval. The sun shines brightly but the wind is biting, and the Surrey squad pile on sweaters and tracksuits to perform their stretches. When they chase back to the warmth of the dressing room, two men stay in the middle. One paddles a tennis ball to the reserve keeper. He is wearing shorts. He can't be English.

He isn't. Steve Rixon is Australian, the man charged with finding the answer to the intriguing question about this summer's County Championship, which starts this week: will Surrey recover their legendary strut and reclaim the title they had begun to believe they owned, or has that enviable certainty gone for good?

Sussex will be anxious to prove that their win was not a flash in the pan. Lancashire think that, after 54 years, it is their turn. Kent may prove capable of emulating Sussex, though they could do with a Mushtaq Ahmed. Warwickshire are young, promising and well coached. Kepler Wessels at Northamptonshire coaches the outsiders who may astonish the rest.

Rixon is cautious about Surrey's chances in 2004, but he is not accustomed to failing: "I'm not saying we will win the Championship this year, but I've never left anywhere not being successful, and I don't propose to start now," he says.

By the standards of the other first-class counties, Surrey's 2003 was not a failure; the National League and the Twenty20 Cup were won. But that was no consolation. During the off-season, the captain resigned, the reliable opener slipped away to Sussex; Alec Stewart retired; the coach left. Even the award-winning groundsman quit.

The new captain is a fresh-faced, unseasoned 29-year-old - though he is 30 next Sunday - called Jon Batty, who is also the wicketkeeper and an opening batsman. Some of his colleagues doubt whether he can manage all three. Rixon does offer one guarantee: "I'll alleviate every off-field commitment so he can concentrate on his game. I'll be working on him. Reality says it can be done, but we must have the flexibility to swing Plan B into play." Plan B presumably has Batty dropping down the order if his batting suffers from multi-tasking. It would be a defeat of a kind; bad for morale.

Batty could not be in better hands. Steve Rixon was 50 in February: old enough to understand the emotions that motivate cricketers - joy, fear, and insecurity. And young enough to be a hands-on coach. He sits with his arms crossed over a stocky chest. A full head of hair is greying. He has a moustache, but it does not bristle. "I'm meant to be hard but fair," he says. Unlike Rod Marsh, the Academy's Australian coach, who can be brutal.

Rixon was Marsh's understudy in the Australian team who were recovering from World Series cricket. He played in 13 Tests, and was the New South Wales keeper for 12 years, between 1974 and 1986, when he was pitched into the coach's job. Apart from four years as New Zealand's coach, he has stuck with NSW. They go on asking him back: "I've always been headhunted," he says. He has a stylish strut all of his own.

Surrey are a rich club (operating profit over £400,000 in 2003), but Rixon was a reluctant acquisition. After Keith Medlycott's startling resignation, Rixon was approached before Christmas. He had heard about the strut, but arrogance never worried him. "It appeals to me, as long as it's orderly. It's another word for confidence." He talked to Martin Bicknell in Australia, and Stewart was an influential advocate. Rixon didn't need the job; besides coaching NSW, he has a leisurewear business in Sydney. "It wasn't something I wanted to do. I would not have come for a pittance. The travelling part doesn't appeal any more. It's probably part of my final coaching stage." But having committed himself - the contract is two years, though he thinks in terms of three - he will give full value. He lives above the shop; Surrey have tarted up a flat and he can keep an eye on the outfield and watch the new stand growing at the Vauxhall End from his balcony.

He met the team during a three-day pre-season get-together at a leisure centre in Sussex: "I feel I know them well already. I'm a great people-watcher and it's always worth having a couple of beers after a day's training." He offers no overarching analysis of what is required. He thinks they need to pick up physical preparation, and want more variety in their work, and more professional advice on fitness. ("In the modern game, players should probably be penalised if they're not fit.")

But the most substantial part of his job will be offering reassurance to Batty and providing motivation for experienced professionals, and for young cricketers such as Rikki Clarke and Scott Newman. "I want to turn them into self-sufficient cricketers," he says. Alex Tudor must be the greatest challenge.

Rixon knows how it is done. When he became New Zealand's coach in 1996, players such as Chris Cairns, Dion Nash and Adam Parore were accused of exhibiting "poor attitude". Rixon saw the good in them and they played their socks off for him. Cairns became the world's leading all-rounder, and he saved the game for New Zealand on the last occasion Rixon visited The Oval, in 1999 when they stole the series from an inadequate England team. He still talks to senior New Zealand players like Cairns and Stephen Fleming, and declares that they will be tough opponents this summer, especially if Shane Bond and Nathan Astle are fit. He evidently relishes Test cricket; when he retires, Rixon would like to become an Australian Test selector.

First he has to revive the Surrey strut in a team who are in transition. Mark Butcher and Graham Thorpe will be otherwise engaged; Adam Hollioake - who will retire at the end of this benefit summer - Mark Ramprakash, Martin Bicknell and Ali Brown are all in their mid-30s. It may be Steve Rixon's final performance as a coach, but he will need all his talent and experience to pull it off.

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