County previews 2014 March 30, 2014

Smith faces his final challenge

Last year
9th, CC Div 1 (relegated); Final, FLt20; 5th in Group B, YB40.

2013 in a nutshell
Gruesome. Despite investing heavily in a host of experienced players, Surrey were relegated in the Championship having finished bottom of Division One with just a single victory and their director of cricket, Chris Adams, was sacked in mid-June. At the time of Adams' sacking, they were not in the relegation positions, but that there were few signs of progress. Instead of Surrey bringing through players from their youth system, the team was disproportionally filled with ageing players brought in as short-term fixes or role-model professionals.

To find the reasons for that, you have to go back another 12 months and to the accident that killed Tom Maynard and ended the rebuilding process that had been progressing well enough. Adams, over-compensating for the perception that the dressing room required more experience, stuffed the side with older players leaving Surrey lacking both identity and direction. The departure of Graeme Smith with a leg injury was another piece of wretched luck.

The other issue was the pitches at the Kia Oval. Slow, low and painfully dull, they did nothing to help Surrey's crop of impressive fast bowlers and when they did experiment with turning surfaces under Alec Stewart - Adams' interim replacement - they were spun to defeat on a poor pitch by Ollie Rayner. There were some bright moments: they reached the final of the FLt20; Rory Burns progressed; Steven Davies rediscovered some of the form that had made him such a fine prospect and Vikram Solanki batted, at times, beautifully.

Results in the Championship actually worsened under Stewart: Surrey lost four out of five games in the season's run-in and only right at the end of the season did he place his trust in the club's younger players. Dominic Sibley responded by becoming, at 18 years of age, the youngest man to score a double-century in the County Championship with a fine innings against Yorkshire. It was telling that several senior players - Jon Lewis, Gary Keedy and Zander de Bruyn - left the club at the end of the season, freeing up not only space in the side for younger players, but money in the budget should new signings be required.

2014 prospects
Expectation is always an issue at The Kia Oval. Even now, after relegation, there are presumptions about an immediate return to the top division. But as Hampshire and Essex have shown, clambering out of Division Two can prove desperately difficult. While there are some big names in the Surrey batting line-up, there is also a great deal of inexperience. Smith was underwhelming as a batsman in 2013 and the availability of Kevin Pietersen is likely to be limited to several T20 games and a few championship appearances. As a result, a batting line-up that looks so strong on paper - a line-up including Smith and Solanki and Pietersen and Davies - might look a little thinner in reality, with plenty required from the likes of Rory Burns, Jason Roy and even Sibley. The new coaching team also have to strike a balance between immediate on-field success and the long-term development of their younger players. The plan, they insist, is not necessarily to win promotion immediately, but to build the foundations for lasting success. Still, there are some real strengths in the squad and a seam attack that includes Jade Dernbach, Chris Tremlett and Stuart Meaker is one that can, given more helpful surfaces, prove potent. With Matt Dunn and George Edwards - two of the more promising fast bowlers in England - in support, it is an attack to rival most in the country and surpass any in Division Two. But, after accepting that success achieved by a team stuffed with imports, from abroad or other counties, counts for little, it will take time to turn things around at Surrey.

Key player
Graeme Smith has not opted for an easy life by choosing to spend much of his later career with Surrey. He will need not just to score heavily at the top of the order, but to lift and unite a side that, by the end of the 2013 season, appeared low in confidence. He is hardly one to shirk a challenge and entered into this relationship with Surrey knowing he was involved in a long-term process, but there are doubts how his body - and, perhaps, his desire - will survive the rigours of a long county season and some less than glamorous venues. Smith's challenge may be as much in sustaining his own enthusiasm as that of his team.

Bright young thing
Part of the criticism of Surrey under Adams was the lack of progress of the younger players. While it is true that the likes of Jason Roy have not progressed quite as quickly as might have been expected, partially due to a lack of opportunity in the first-class team, the club still possesses some of the brightest talents in the English game. Matt Dunn and George Edwards are strong fast bowlers of immense potential, while Sibley and Tom Curran offer further hope for the future. But it may prove to be Edwards, a 21-year-old from London, who goes on to achieve the most. He has only played four first-class games so far but should win more opportunity and has the raw attributes to make rapid progress.

Captain/coach
Graham Ford has joined as head coach and Graeme Smith should be available throughout the season as captain. Alec Stewart remains as director of cricket.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
Promotion may not be the forgone conclusion some expect. So low was confidence at the club by the end of 2013, that it will take time for Ford and Smith to instil a new spirit at Surrey. Great expectations may continue to be the enemy of progress at The Kia Oval.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments