HOOK SHOT: Surrey’s four-day County Championship season has got off to a shaky start, so they will welcome the arrival of the T20 tournament and young talent Sam Curran, writes MARCUS HOOK
It’s hard to imagine anyone welcoming the start of the Twenty20 Blast county tournament more warmly than Surrey, who in the first month of the season have struggled to adjust to life back in Division One of the County Championship.
The Blast, which gets under way this Friday, promises to deliver even more atmosphere, more high voltage cricket and, just as importantly for a county game that is struggling financially, increased revenue.
Advance ticket sales across all 18 first-class counties are up by 35,000 over this stage last year. Surrey have already sold more than 30,000 tickets and Middlesex more than 20,000, underlining the pull the (generally) Friday evening competition enjoys in London.
In terms of financial well-being, Surrey buck the county trend. In 2015-2016, Surrey County Cricket Club’s profit after tax leapt from £963,000 to £2.09 million on the back of a 31 per cent increase in turnover from international and domestic ticket sales.
Two years ago, the club’s revenue from domestic cricket was £1.2 million. Last year that figure was £1.8 million – a 50 per cent rise, driven, almost entirely, by the popularity of T20.
The money has helped pay for the new Peter May Stand, named after the former Surrey and England batsman and captain. Built over the winter at a cost of £10 million, the new stand, which was officially opened last Sunday by Virginia May, Peter’s widow, has increased the capacity at the Kia Oval from 24,000 to 26,000.
May was a right-handed No3 batsman who played with deft elegance and represented England on 66 occasions, 41 times as captain, scoring 27,592 first-class runs at an average of 51.00. He was central to Surrey winning seven successive County Championship titles between 1952 and 1958.
How they could do with him today. Following this season’s change of rules regarding the toss in championship matches, it’s no longer enough for a top order batsman to average more than 40. So far, only Kumar Sangakkara is averaging significantly more than that for Surrey.
With two defeats from five in the County Championship, and no sign of a win, Surrey not only find themselves in the relegation zone, but also with a lengthening injury list. Ravi Rampaul, their leading wicket-taker this season with 18 wickets, is nursing a sore hamstring, Mark Footitt is out with a side strain and both Jade Dernbach (back) and Stuart Meaker (groin) are still to see active service.
But the biggest concern of all is Zafar Ansari, who is out of action “for the immediate future” with a bruised thumb – the same one that suffered an internal dislocation at the end of last season.
Spin-bowling batsman Ansari is key in terms of the balance of the side. In 2015, no Surrey batsman faced more deliveries in the County Championship, and only Tom Curran bowled more overs.
In the T20 Blast, Surrey’s injury problems won’t even be alleviated in the short-term by the rule allowing counties to field a second overseas player.
Dwayne Bravo still has commitments to fulfil in India. Even if Bravo’s Indian Premier League side, the Gujarat Lions, fail to qualify for the knock-out phase (they currently sit fourth), it’s by no means certain the West Indies all-rounder will touch down at Heathrow in time for next week’s first T20 match at The Oval for the 2016 season, between Surrey and Glamorgan.
Consequently, Surrey are exploring the possibility of Sam Curran – who is currently preparing for his A-Levels and who turns 18 in a fortnight’s time – interrupting his studies in order to start the tournament with a bang.
Only when Bravo arrives and Curran has put away his school books can Surrey expect to be competitive, even with T20 specialist Azhar Mahmood to call upon.
As with batsmen, bowlers operate best in partnerships. Mahmood at one end and Dernbach at the other makes for arguably the best death bowling duo in the country.
But in the peripatetic lifestyle of the modern professional cricketer, there’s no such thing as an off-season or rest period, and 30-year-old pace bowler Dernbach spent the winter playing in New Zealand’s T20 competition for Wellington before moving on to Sydney to play some Grade cricket, prior to moving to Pakistan to play in their T20 tournament.
It was while in Australia that Dernbach suffered a stress fracture of the back, and he is still walking the long road to recovery.
Having reached T20 Finals with Surrey in 2013 and 2014, Dernbach puts last summer’s disappointing campaign in the short-form game down to injuries to key players. “If you look back, we had quite a lot of injuries leading up to the Twenty20,” said Dernbach, who has accumulated more than 50 England caps in one-day and T20 internationals.
“I only came in halfway through the comp and, by then, we were really struggling. It’s so important to get off to a good start in the Twenty20. Because it’s not in a block of games, it’s hard to get on a roll, especially then if you’re losing.
“As long as we can keep everybody fit – and that’s why we’ve now got a bigger squad – we’ll be able to balance Twenty20 as well as red-ball cricket.”
Dernbach then provided an insight into the art of bowling the crucial last few overs at the end of a limited overs innings, or “at the death”: “There can’t be anything more important than everyone knowing their role. It’s knowing that when you come down to those crunch situations the captain, under all that pressure, can go: ‘He’s my banker,’ knowing exactly what you’re going to get from everyone at any one moment.
“You need to be able to handle the pressure of the situation at the death. That takes a lot of time and practice, and experience – knowing how to narrow the focus. In the end, death bowling is mind games with the batsmen. It’s also knowing where you want to be hit. You want to make him hit your best ball. I felt like I got back to doing that, hitting that spot, at the end of last season and it was nice it paid off.”
Dernbach, who took a hat-trick in last season’s Royal London One-Day Cup final at Lord’s, is keen to pass that experience on to Surrey’s up-and-coming seamers, like the Curran brothers, Sam and his older brother Tom, sons of the former Zimbabwean international all-rounder, Kevin Curran.
“I was lucky enough, when I first came into the side, I had the likes of Martin Bicknell there, shepherding me through,” said Dernbach. “I’d like to think I’ve got a lot of experience now that I can pass it on to these guys.
“They’ve got plenty of talent, there’s no doubt about that, but if I can just pass on little bits of knowledge then, hopefully, I can lead them in a good direction. We’re all driven by the same things. We want to be successful out on the pitch.”
Dernbach believes that the new Surrey coach, Michael Di Venuto, also has a role to play in this respect. “Diva’s got a lot of experience all over the world. Someone who’s been as successful as he has, not just as a coach, but as a player… all that experience is going to help us no end.
“I think there’s a lot to look forward to at Surrey. We’ve got a lot of young exciting players coming through, also not forgetting us old boys.”
- Marcus Hook has reported on Surrey county cricket since 2000. Last year, his column for the South London Press was commended in the ECB’s County Cricket Journalism Awards
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