Sorry Surrey rely on five-year plan

County focus; Stephen Brenkley reports on a youth policy designed to banish age-old failure
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IT WAS mildly surprising to find that the Surrey coach did not look the same age as the club. In the circumstances 150 might have been on the young side. This was intended to be a glorious anniversary summer at the Oval. Nobody could have been greater party-poopers than the team: much-vaunted, highly glamorous and out of contention in every competition.

And was Grahame Clinton fretting his way to premature dotage about this undesirable turn of events? He was not. His mood in the blistering heat of the St Lawrence ground at Canterbury last week was as jaunty as the Panama hat on his head. In a season which has seen Norman Gifford, his counterpart at Sussex, depart because of poor results, Clinton pronounced himself content. He certainly did not look nor sound like a man under pressure.

"It has been disappointing, I have to admit that," he said. "But you have to discuss why things have happened then balance that out against all the positive points. Yes, it would have been good to win things this year for the first time in 14 seasons and that's a record that must be altered. But I'm in the business not of getting a trophy in a season but of building a side that will last five seasons and still go on from there. We've got a young team and it can take two or three years to get established."

Much of what Clinton says in defence of Surrey is incontrovertible and in the confines of the dressing room he may well be prepared to be more critical than he was sitting around the St Lawrence nets. He pointed out that Surrey have won the toss in only four of 13 Championship games and lamented the significance of the coin landing the right way. It was, he insisted, no way to play first-class cricket. In the old days (Clinton is 42) he said a captain might think of asking the opposition to bat but not now, not in 1995, when he had to put his own team in, hope to score 400-500, then catch the opposition on a rapidly deteriorating pitch.

It was probably only momentary forgetfulness, but Clinton did not mention that Surrey did win the toss against Warwickshire this season: they chose to field and lost by 93 runs. "What I have to do as a coach is to make sure the players improve," he said. "It's as simple as that. We've got a young side and the young players couldn't have done much more for us this summer. They need the established players to be doing well but at the start of the summer that simply did not happen. People like Darren Bicknell and Graham Thorpe simply weren't doing their stuff."

As he spoke Bicknell and Thorpe were compiling majestic centuries, so they have managed to surmount that failing. Clinton is eager to emphasise the positive aspects of the season. He is painfully aware - and almost grimaced in recounting it - that his youngsters, who provided most of the high spots, have a reputation as batsmen for big-hitting cameos - for brief interludes and nothing more.

"I think it simply reflects society. Nobody has any attention span any more. It's not in people's nature to concentrate and that's probably passed on in our cricket. I'm convinced of it."

It is part of Clinton's job to change this, to ensure that the batsmen appreciate the value of batting for five hours instead of slogging for five minutes. He will persevere with his present team.

He is also convinced that part of the problem with this country and with almost any sport is that people are not given a proper chance. Good players are expected to succeed too soon and were quickly consigned to the scrapheap. He is not about to let that happen at the Oval.

He is fond of alluding to Australia and how they chose a team, watched it flounder, allowed it to find its feet and have now got due reward. Surrey's is an insular, close-knit team which would benefit from the opportunity to grow as was evident from an incident at Canterbury.

The club captain, Alec Stewart, though injured, was in attendance and quite happy to act as gofer for his team-mates. At lunch he bounded down the dressing-room steps and carried up meals for the batsmen to ensure that they recovered from their morning labours.

Clinton wants both to mould a successful Surrey and ensure that his players are part of a successful England. He concedes that some of the talk may be premature, but is a believer in starting them young. The coach exudes praise for names such as Kersey, Hollioake, Tudor and even the maddeningly reckless but hugely talented Brown. The Oval may not be a happy place to be this summer but Clinton is clearly planning huge celebrations for the 153rd birthday when he should still look about 45.