Tim de Lisle: Surrey seems to be the hardest word for England's selectors

When England play South Africa in Saturday's one-day final, the chances are that the team sheet will contain no Surrey players. The only one in the squad is Rikki Clarke, who doesn't always make the first XI - for county or country. Yet the one-day team of the summer so far is, indisputably, Surrey. They are top of the National League with six wins out of seven. They have won all five of their matches in the Twenty20 Cup, despite resting as many as six first-choice players. In 23 matches this season in all forms of cricket, they have lost only once - to Derbyshire in the C&G Trophy, when Mohammad Kaif of India made a masterly 81 on a seaming pitch at Derby, and Surrey's big guns were spiked by Dominic Cork and Kevin Dean.

Surrey and England used to go together like curry and lager. There are more men who have captained England in the Surrey dressing-room (Stewart, Butcher, Thorpe, Hollioake) than in the present England team (just Vaughan and Trescothick). England's most capped one-day player is Alec Stewart, who is Surrey down to his spotlessly whitened bootstraps. Alex Tudor was in both England teams only last summer, as was Mark Ramprakash the year before. Ally Brown was once a one-day regular, Jimmy Ormond was in the Test team 19 months ago, Ian Ward just before that. Martin Bicknell was given a decent run in the one-day team - 12 years ago.

The Test team hasn't lost the Surrey connection, with Butcher, in home series at least, an automatic choice at No 3, and Stewart still making it hard for anyone under 40 to dislodge him as wicketkeeper-batsman. But the rest of the Oval match-winners can't get a look-in. Where once there appeared to be a bias towards Surrey players, there is now a whiff of prejudice against. Asked why he opposed the return of Adam Hollioake, Duncan Fletcher reputedly dropped his guard for once and muttered something along the lines of "if he's such a good captain, why don't Surrey win more one-day trophies?"

The short answer was that they win more than most. They have collected three one-day titles in seven years, to go with three Championships in four. Gloucestershire have a better one-day record, but then they've done nothing in first-class cricket. The cluttered fixture list makes it hard for any county to be consistently good in both whites and pyjamas. This year, Surrey have managed it. If Fletcher is determined to judge Hollioake on results, he will soon have no way to leave him out.

By long tradition, most of England's key players come from two sources: the Surrey championship and the Yorkshire leagues. The players who have done best for England against Australia down the years have mostly come from The Oval or Headingley. England's only century-makers in Ashes Tests this decade have been Vaughan, Butcher and Ramprakash. Their occasional victories over Australia have come from scintillating performances by Vaughan, Butcher, Darren Gough and Thorpe; although also, to be fair, Nasser Hussain, Andy Caddick, Dean Headley, and Phil Tufnell in the happy days before he was best known for saying "happy days". Surrey and Yorkshire can't do it alone - even Boycott, Edrich and Illingworth needed Luckhurst, D'Oliveira and Snow - but the other 16 counties can't do it without them.

Five years ago, the best way to get into the England team was to play for Surrey. Now, you're better off joining Yorkshire, even if their results go up and down like their roads. Anthony McGrath is preferred to Hollioake, a similar player with a better county record and more international experience, the one ingredient England chronically lack. When Fletcher's England have needed an extra seam or swing bowler, the call has gone out to Yorkies such as Gavin Hamilton, Ryan Sidebottom and Chris Silverwood, never to the vastly more accomplished Martin Bicknell. When they needed a second spinner last winter, the place went to Yorkshire's Richard Dawson, a promising youngster who hadn't yet done anything to suggest he would be more than a passenger.

When the selectors picked the present squad, they took a calculated risk on a one-day veteran, missing for a year or so and written off in some quarters, who had much to impart to the novice bowlers (Gough), and rightly so. But they wouldn't do so with a one-day veteran, missing for a year or so and written off in some quarters, who had much to impart to the novice batsmen (Thorpe). This may have had nothing to do with their counties: a dodgy knee is easier for the sporting mind to cope with than a messy divorce.

The question now is not so much how many Surrey players should be in the England team, as how many England players would get a game with Surrey. Ward or Trescothick? Butcher or Vaughan? These are not easy calls. A composite one-day team might look like this: Trescothick, Vaughan (Surrey wouldn't make the obvious mistake of pushing him down the order), Brown, Thorpe, Flintoff, Stewart, Hollioake (capt), Bicknell, Saqlain Mushtaq (who would surely have won the NatWest Challenge for Pakistan, if they had only remembered to pick him), Gough and Anderson. So about five England players would make it, but on present form Gough would be pressed hard by Ormond, Vaughan by Butcher, and several players by Azhar Mahmood.

If the froideur continues, Surrey will have no choice but to apply for international status. And the International Cricket Council, having let Bangladesh in, would be duty-bound to admit them. They would be way ahead of Zimbabwe, and on a level with West Indies. Or England.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden 2003