Resurgent Surrey surprise sceptics

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The Independent Online
This time last year, Surrey were bottom of the County Championship, drowning in the depths of another season in which those who had predicted great things from their unquestionably talented players again felt badly let down.

Many former friends passed them by when prospects were assessed this year, despairing of their ever fulfilling their potential.

They might regret their lack of faith now. This July finds Surrey in full sail, fourth in the Championship, top of the AXA Equity & Law League and through to the quarter-finals of the NatWest Trophy, with a home tie to come. Nine games of the last 11 have been won, the last enabling them gleefully to displace Middlesex at the summit of the Sunday competition.

Today they begin a four-day Championship match against Sussex at Guildford, where victory would add considerably to the view that they can make a realistic stab at the Britannic Assurance prize money as well.

One can still cast doubt on their credentials in the absence of an experienced spin bowler, but in an open title contest they do not look significantly under-resourced. Indeed, that blemish apart, they look well equipped, particularly in the batting, which was always likely to be the case, but also in the bowling, where Martin Bicknell, who missed half of last season, is again performing sterling service, where Chris Lewis appears a fast bowler reborn and where Brendon Julian is redeeming himself after a disappointing start.

Last time out in the Championship, Bicknell had nine wickets, Julian seven, as Middlesex succumbed to their neighbours for the first time in 10 years.

Pre-season, Dave Gilbert, another in the wave of Australian imports among county coaches, promised "a Surrey side unrecognisable from the past", one that would not wilt under pressure. Judgement on that must be reserved as yet, but optimism at this stage is entirely reasonable.

Opponents Sussex, having crept up to seventh place, are also contenders, at least on paper, though the gap between themselves and leaders Kent stands at 37 points, compared with Surrey's 21.

Alan Wells, the captain, has been extolling the potential of his young all-rounder Danny Law, 20 this week, who is beginning to look a useful swing bowler. But Sussex seem too thin in the batting to progress much further, with Wells the only batsman even to reach 500 first-class runs. And doubt remains over the fast bowler Ed Giddins, reported to be awaiting judgement over a failed dope test.

Kent, who entertain the Pakistanis at Canterbury starting on Saturday, will probably lose their lead again as Yorkshire seek to re-establish themselves as the team to beat by defeating Hampshire at Harrogate commencing tomorrow.

In terms of sheer talent, there is no dispute that Yorkshire possess an attractive hand, one quite possibly awash with future England players in the shape of Tony McGrath, Michael Vaughan and, perhaps, Chris Silverwood, not to mention Alex Morris, who will captain England Under-19s in one- day games against New Zealand tomorrow and Saturday, at Chester-le-Street and Nottingham.

The question mark against Yorkshire is posed by the coming loss of Michael Bevan, whose 1,100 runs have been the mainstay of their challenge. Bevan's commitment to play for Australia in Sri Lanka will rob captain David Byas of his services for the last four matches. Youth is one thing, experience quite another.

Leicestershire, who go to Cheltenham on the back of consecutive innings victories, carry more of the latter, having wise old heads such as James Whitaker, Phil Simmons and Gordon Parsons to help them negotiate the bumps and a potent attack formed by David Millns and Alan Mullally.

Middlesex, meanwhile, hope to take advantage of an injury to Curtly Ambrose at Northampton, in particular on Sunday, where the clash of second-placed against fourth is the match of the day.