Surrey aiming to bridge the great divide

David Llewellyn talks to the men who are determined to ensure success returns to their cricket club through hard work, discipline and a hunger to win
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Surrey are emerging from a winter of discontent with a spring in their step.

Changes of chairman and chief executive, plus the appointment of a highly regarded cricket manager have helped push into the background recent financial and administrative problems and an incomprehensible lack of playing success for more than a decade.

The task of this triumvirate is to rebuild a once great club and get it back to winning ways. Even without the imports, the talent is there.

They have begun with a significant demolition. Surrey's own Great Divide - a wall splitting the capped players' dressing-room from that of the uncapped men - has gone.

As symbolism goes, it was fairly graphic. And although he does not want to take credit for it, Dave Gilbert, Surrey's cricket manager cum head coach, was the architect of the move. "To me it just made common sense," the former Australian Test player, who took up his new post in February after spending three years as Queensland's assistant manager, says. "We are all in it together and to discriminate by doing that off the field I felt was extremely damaging and it was hell of a contradiction then to expect everyone to mould together on the field."

He canvassed the senior players, who backed him to the hilt and Surrey had taken the first tottering step on what everyone hopes will be the road to success.

Gilbert's enthusiasm is matched by that of the new chairman, Mike Soper, a straight-talking businessman and the incoming chief executive, Paul Sheldon, an orderly man.

"I want us to build a team within three years capable of winning all forms of competition," Sheldon says. To this end, he will apply the experience he gained in the publishing industry in creating an off the field team out of all the disparate components that go to make up the backroom staff at any professional cricket club.

Soper has implicit faith in those around him and rather than get too involved in the day to day running of the club, which apart from being Sheldon's role would not be possible since he has a business to run, is more concerned with membership. "I want Surrey to come back to being a members' club," he says. "I think we have to return to some of the traditional values, while still moving with the times."

Soper's is a tricky role. He has had to negotiate an awkward sgm as well as last week's agm, at which The Oval authorities, having predicted a profit of some pounds 270,000 at the start of the year, found themselves owning up to having turned that into a deficit of some pounds 315,000 - a perceived loss of almost pounds 600,000.

The membership has been restless for some time. Too often over the last 10 years they have seen a side studded with gifted players grind to a shuddering halt in the chase for honours. Their last triumph came in 1982, when they won the NatWest Trophy; the last time they lifted the County Championship was in 1971, before many of the present side were born.

There has been frequent criticism that the committee were more concerned in the past with Surrey's status as a Test match ground and that those five days in August were the focus of the whole season, but Sheldon is determined to change that perspective.

"Primarily we are Surrey County Cricket Club," he insists. "But Surrey the Test match ground and Surrey CCC are interrelated. One cannot exist without the other. And every time we have built another tier on the pavilion, we [the committee] have moved further away from the members. I want to change that."

So rather than allow his committee members to withdraw to some lofty ivory tower at the historic ground, Soper is planning to create a members' liaison group to maintain links with what he and Sheldon recognise is the lifeblood of the club. "I enjoy talking proper cricket to the members," Soper says. "Not cricket that happened 35 or 40 years ago. I like to talk about how the second XI are doing. Modern-day cricket. I am a club cricketer."

On the field, there is no doubt about how things will go. Gilbert has a straightforward philosophy. "We play sport for fun, for enjoyment, for recreation," he says. "Of course, once it becomes your livelihood, in some respects it becomes a serious business, but even then if you cannot have that fun aspect I think you might as well give it up."

But he is a hard man, and coupled with that fun aspect is perhaps the core of antipodean success over the years. "The formula for success is hard work, discipline and a hunger to win," Gilbert explains. "I've been absolutely delighted with the way the players here have responded. There have been some tough pre-season sessions, but never once have I heard someone complain."

He is not foolish enough, nor are Sheldon and Soper, to promise trophies this season, but Gilbert has a two-year contract and he says: "I'd like to make an impact in that time. I am very ambitious to go places and obviously I see my long-term future in Australian cricket, but while I am here I will give it everything I have. I'd love nothing more more than to be part of the Surrey set-up that knocks off the Aussies when they come over here next year. That would be fantastic."

Barriers are coming down at The Oval, and all that is left now is the hurdle of harnessing the talent and turning Surrey into a winning club.