So long to long faces

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The Independent Online
The outfield still bore the scars of the experiment, but in his office overlooking the ground Paul Sheldon was not about to turn shy after one bite. It has taken 18 months for the new radicalism to take root in the hitherto unpromising pastures of the Oval and the wash-out of the first floodlit match in the Sunday League was hardly an excuse to shelve the rock music and send Roary the Lion's costume back to the joke shop. Not yet anyway.

If Sheldon, the county's chief executive, was to follow his players in adopting a theme tune for his Sundays, "The times they are a'changing" would be an appropriate choice. Not long ago, the idea of revolution stirring beneath the gasometer would have been as novel as a visitor receiving a sunny smile from the gateman at Fortress Oval or an opposing batsman a cordial how-do-you-do from a Surrey fielder. The Oval might have been "home from home" for John Major but for most others the vast wasteland of the former market garden chilled the soul. Surrey could field an XI of world-class whingers, even in their heyday.

Sheldon is more Lenin than Che Guevara on the revolutionary scale. He is 43, has piercing blue eyes and a bookish manner befitting his previous life as a director of the publishers, Hodder and Stoughton . His sentences are delivered so quietly at times, you wonder if he is talking to you or just to himself. But no one should doubt the ruthlessness of purpose behind the slow smile. The Surrey players have been told quite clearly what is expected of them, not just on Saturday against Kent in the final of the Benson and Hedges Cup, but next year and the one after that. It is all written into the club's first business plan along with development proposals to make the Oval more user-friendly. Revolutionary indeed.

"Our aim is to win a minimum of one of the one-day competitions and finish in the top three of the County Championship," he said. "The players know that." Note the word "minimum". In return, Sheldon adds, the club has to be run professionally to support the players - or "the product" as he sometimes refers to them. Trust has to be two-way.

"There is inevitably a culture which says 'the club gives me nothing therefore I'm not giving them anything' and there's a bit of that here still. But that's changing. If a player can see the club is giving its all for him, then they're going to see that they've got to give it back. Inevitably, in a cricket club where the players are employed for six months of the year, there will be a division between club and cricket. The biggest thing I'm trying to do is break that down, so we're all helping each other."

That the players tarried in the sponsors' boxes long after duty called, the lights had dimmed and the rain had ensured a large insurance claim, suggests that some of Sheldon's philosophy is filtering through. His timing has been good. In Dave Gilbert, the coach, he has a go-ahead Australian with an open mind; in players like the Hollioakes, young, dynamic, eminently marketable cricketers aware of their duties on and off the field.

"The long face between the car park and the dressing-room as opposed to the one that acknowledges people, signs autographs, even though the player might be under pressure. It sounds obvious, but it's amazing how much difference things like that make," Sheldon said.

Resistance to Surrey's Sunday league innovations has been strong and predictable. Sheldon's background espousal of what seems to the purists like gimmicks have made him an object of suspicion. He does not pretend to have the answers to the problems of county cricket, particularly not how to revive the four-day game, but the logic of his argument is irrefutable.

"Some counties genuinely believe the game is in good shape. My reply is 'wake up'. What we're doing isn't working, so we have to try something different. We all recognise that Test cricket is the pure form of cricket, but we won't get anyone to play it unless we plug into the modern mentality. That's why our focus was the 40-over game, to get young people hooked on an identity." The blueprint for change due out in August is critical, Sheldon believes. Ignore it and frustrated players and administrators will take the law into their own hands or, worse, be prey to a Packer- style hijacking.

"That's a major concern because the motivation [of such a figure] would be wrong. We shouldn't risk it happening. I hope the proposals give the game a considerable shake-up," he said. In the meantime, Surrey have a winning habit to acquire and a demanding boss to appease. The Sunday League title was a start; the Benson and Hedges Cup is the next step. The smile is returning to the face of Surrey cricket.

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