Gilbert turns Oval full circle

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The Independent Online
A Glance at the Championship table, or at the list of the four teams contesting the NatWest semi-finals on Tuesday (Lancashire, Yorkshire, Surrey and Essex) confirms what has been increasingly apparent all season - that peace has broken out at the Oval.

Graham Thorpe, Adam Hollioake and Mark Butcher are high in the batting averages, Martin Bicknell has taken a hatful of wickets, and when his brother Darren finds runs hard to come by, he simply makes good by taking match-winning wickets with his slow left-arm spin. The Surrey smile has returned to south-east London.

Matters came to a head last season. The team finished 12th in the Championship, halfway down the Sunday table and nowhere in the one-dayers. The club that dominated domestic cricket in the Fifties has not had to find any extra space in the trophy cabinet since 1982, and an autumn of discontent led both to a special meeting of members and various backroom departures.

Meanwhile, the former Australian fast bowler Dave Gilbert was taking leave of the Australian Cricket Academy to take up his new post as Surrey's cricket coach. He has transformed the club.

"They were looking for a motivator," he says. "Someone to instil self-belief. It couldn't happen overnight because in some cases there really were deep psychological scars to heal. But we are starting to get it right, and beginning to think that perhaps we could do something serious this year. There's always been the talent here, but now there's a lot of fun as well. So people are giving more, pulling together rather than bickering."

Gilbert identifies the week of the NatWest quarter-finals, which put them just one match away from Lord's, as the turning point. "It was like having three Cup finals in three days. In the Sunday league Hampshire were 100 for two chasing 220, but we won. On Monday we chased 330 in the Championship and then in the NatWest Somerset went to lunch at 120 for two. Overnight we still had a job to do but Butcher and Hollioake just played their normal game and saw us home. It was as if people kept throwing obstacles in our way and the players always found ways to extricate themselves."

Gilbert knows how tough Essex will prove. "Any side with Gooch and Law is going to be a handful. And not just them - it could be Prichard or Hussain or Irani doing the damage. I've seen a lot of Law in the last four years and I rate him one of Australia's very best one-day batsmen. And he can be a nuisance when he's bowling or fielding as well."

Law is due to catch a Tuesday-night plane to join Australia's Sri Lanka tour, and Gilbert admits to hoping this will cause "a little bit of mayhem to our advantage".

Since Gilbert approaches the job of cricket coach from the psychological point of view at the outset, and worries about the footwork later, it is natural to ask if he has a special file marked "Chris Lewis". "When I arrived every man and his dog was telling me about Chris," he laughs. "No problem at all. I took advice from Wayne Bennett, coach of the Brisbane Broncos, and he said you've got to approach individual players with an open mind. All Chris needs is to be accepted, to fit in. I think he and Adam Hollioake are particularly friendly, a lot of mickey-taking, but that's just part of the enjoyment that everyone's feeling now. It's essential to Chris's game to feel part of things, and we've really had good value from him this year. The game against Essex is a huge one, and it is encouraging to know that Chris, whether he's batting or bowling or fielding, can deliver at the very top level."

Essex's 1996 record is, of course, as impressive as Surrey's, but they know they are taking on a side in better heart than for many years. With Yorkshire also riding high, and Lancashire far more dangerous than their Championship position might suggest, Tuesday bodes well.