HOOK SHOT: Two defeats in the past week, each by one wicket, have been the latest morale-sapping set-backs for struggling Surrey. MARCUS HOOK asks the county cricket club’s coach, Michael Di Venuto, what it will take to turn around the season
Life back in Division One of the County Championship was never going to be easy for Surrey. It took them a couple of seasons to clamber out of Division Two, in which the heat of battle, even at its hottest, seldom glows as white over four days as it does in the top flight.
All the talk around the club was of Surrey not merely going up to survive, but going up to compete. That the county side won on just four occasions in 32 matches the last time they were in Division One, when they had some vastly more experienced players, was fair warning of what lay ahead.
Chris Tremlett, Vikram Solanki and Zander de Bruyn have all hung up their pads since then. Tom and Sam Curran are already being tipped as future Test stars. Both were instrumental in Surrey leapfrogging Lancashire to win Division Two last summer. But, even now, the Curran brothers’ combined age is just 39.
In signing Mark Footitt and Ravi Rampaul, Surrey took out the insurance of adding two experienced seam bowlers to an already long list of possibles. The signings prompted questions among members in the long room at The Oval such as: “What will it mean for young Dunn? Where does that leave Meaker? Is Dernbach now only regarded as a one-day player?”
By week five of the season, both Footitt (side strain) and Rampaul (hamstring) were out injured and have not seen action since.
Eyebrows were also raised by the resignation of head coach Graham Ford, just a month before the season. Michael Di Venuto was swiftly revealed as his successor. To have lured Di Venuto away from the job of mentoring Australia’s Steve Smith and David Warner – two of the biggest names in world cricket – was widely regarded as something of a coup for Surrey.
Ford now has just as big a job masterminding Sri Lanka’s rebuilding as Di Venuto has instilling a belief in Surrey’s young charges that they can avooid relegation. After seven County Championship games, their record stands:
Played 7, Lost 4, Drawn 3 and Won 0.
With white ball cricket now dominating the schedule, Surrey have just a solitary four-day game in June. So, even if they do start to turn the corner against Nottinghamshire (to be played at The Oval, June 19-22), they will continue to look doomed on the Division One table well into July, and that of itself could eat away at any hope.
“We can’t really control that, so there’s no point really worrying about it,” says Di Venuto.
“There’s still a lot of four-day cricket to come. There’s nothing we can do by looking at the table for the next month if we can’t affect it. The obvious challenge ahead is in the back half of the season.
“The schedule is what it is. We’ve got Twenty20s and one-day cricket coming up. Our Twenty20 form is a bit mixed at the moment. Brilliant at times, poor at other times, so we need to find a happy medium there. But Dwayne Bravo coming into the Twenty20 side is a huge lift.
“We’ve still got plenty of areas in which to improve, there’s no doubt about that. We’ll continue to work hard. We’re certainly not going to hide away and we’re certainly not going to sulk in the corner.”
Nevertheless, a defeat is a defeat, whether it is by an innings or just one wicket; as was the case twice in the space of the past week – first in the championship game with Somerset at Taunton, then in Surrey’s opening One-Day Cup game against Kent at Beckenham on Sunday.
“We weren’t quite good enough at Taunton, it’s just as simple as that,” said Surrey’s coach. “Somerset outplayed us on the final day. Full credit to them, but we’ll be working hard behind the scenes. We played better cricket in that match, which was pleasing. Come Notts, in the next championship game, we’ll continue on with our improvement.
“We were short with the bat at Beckenham, there’s no doubt about that. There were some good starts there, with guys looking good. But, unfortunately, they didn’t kick on which meant that, instead of being 280 on that wicket, we were 255.
“Our injuries are numerous, everyone knows that, but there’s been some wonderful opportunities for guys to show what they can do over the last couple of months. Unfortunately, they haven’t stepped up as much as they would have liked, or as much as I would have liked, but that’s the game – they’re learning.
“They’re trying hard and improving as cricketers, so it’s important for us to stick together as a team and continue working hard. That’s all we can do at the moment and, hopefully, the results will change on the field.
“On the injury front, Mark Footitt is now playing, albeit for the second team, and Ravi Rampaul is bowling again, in the nets, so we don’t think he’s too far away. So, come the Notts game, we should have a good list of fast bowlers to choose from.”
Other players have other concerns. Sam Curran, who celebrated his 18th birthday last Friday by helping Surrey overcome Sussex in the T20 Blast, still has his A-Levels hanging over him.
“Sam will miss the next championship game,” Di Venuto said. “He’ll still be unavailable for that, but he’ll continue playing a few one-dayers for us. When he’s available he’ll certainly play. He’s a super talent. Cool under pressure, he showed a bit with the bat against Kent at Beckenham… yeah, he’s a real beauty.”
Even though injuries have held them back with the ball, it has been Surrey’s inability to dominate for any length of the time with the bat that has proved to be their undoing so far this season.
“The key for us is partnerships,” said Di Venuto. “At the start of the season, we were getting some good partnerships, not massive 200-run partnerships, but we knocking off 75-plus and a hundred runs.
“All the KPIs we’ve got, we were achieving. But in recent weeks we haven’t really put together any partnerships at all, which is disappointing.
“Against Somerset at Taunton, we had a good 85-run partnership developing between Davies and Ansari. We were certainly looking for it to be a big one, but it wasn’t to be. We’ve got some quality batsmen, but everyone needs to step up.
“The guys are working hard. I can’t fault their effort in training; and, in practice, they’re working hard on their game. They’re a great bunch of kids. They enjoy each other’s company and the team is really tight. So, there’s a lot of good things going on, but, unfortunately, that’s not being transferred on to the pitch.”
When Di Venuto was announced as Surrey’s head coach, he said: “It’s okay for players to make mistakes. We’re all going to make mistakes. As long as we learn from that and improve, that’s what counts.
“My big thing is coaching individuals, helping them become the best possible players they can be and as a team be the best team that we can be. If we all head in that direction, what happens out in the middle will take care of itself.”
The trouble is, in terms of championship survival, Surrey can’t afford to make many more mistakes.
- 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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