Surrey 2015 preview April 7, 2015

Main event or KP sideshow?

Looks who's back: Kevin Pietersen will be available to boost Surrey's challenge © Getty Images

Last season
Championship: 5th Div 2; NatWest Blast: Semi-finals; Royal London Cup: 9th Group B

IN: Ben Foakes (Essex), David Balcombe (Hampshire), James Burke (Somerset)
OUT: Tom Jewell, Jack Winslade (both released), George Edwards (Lancashire)
Overseas: Kumar Sangakkara, Moises Henriques

2014 in a nutshell
For a side as well resourced as Surrey to be languishing in the second division of the Championship is automatically unsatisfactory, but Graham Ford, their South African coach, has reasonable grounds to talk of "progress" even though 2014 ended with promotion not secured. Surrey began the season badly but some talented young players were beginning to take the lead by September. Remove a miraculous bout of tail-end hitting by Jack Shantry and rain at a critical time against the bottom club Leicestershire and things could have turned out differently. Friday nights at The Oval for the NatWest Blast showed county cricket at its most attractive and, in Jason Roy, Surrey had the star of the season. They reached finals day but went out in the semis.

2015 prospects
Not since Geoffrey Boycott's troubled period at Yorkshire, 30 years and more ago, has the fate of one man dominated the narrative of a county season. What are Surrey to make of Kevin Pietersen's return to Championship cricket? Alec Stewart, a stickler for discipline, speaks highly of him, and his relationship with the coach, Ford, has always been a trusting one. Pietersen's personal ambitions to represent England in an Ashes series can help give Surrey a flying start, but what if it all goes wrong? Will his interest hold or will his dejection become disruptive? Surrey have other exciting young players who deserve recognition, but it won't happen, not for a while yet, and they need to accept the inevitable and get on with it.

Power brokers
"A very honest man, a fine character and a good leader." Such was the assessment from Alec Stewart, Surrey's director of cricket, when asking Gareth Batty to put his shoulder to the captaincy wheel once more. The Graeme Smith era that Surrey had pinned their hopes on had been trashed by injury and, less than three years after guiding Surrey through a traumatic period following the death of Tom Maynard, Batty was reappointed to work alongside Ford. An unsung professional with many fine attributes, nobody would deserve promotion more.

Key player
Calls for Roy to be the gamble in England's World Cup squad were predictably ignored but, in 2014, he made the leap from a prodigiously talented but erratic young cricketer to a consistent match-winner. The transformation was particularly evident in the NatWest T20 Blast, where he struck 677 runs at 48.35 apiece - the highest tally in the competition. With his swagger, breathtaking power down the ground and penchant for switch-hitting - not to mention the fact he was born in South Africa - he was frequently compared to Kevin Pietersen, not least by Pietersen himself. By the summer's end, he was rewarded with a T20 international debut against India. His vastly improved Championship form - he averaged 52.10 at a strike rate of 84.78 - passed almost unnoticed but it was further proof of his exciting advance.

Bright young thing
"Bright" is perhaps not the most obvious word to describe Zafar Ansari's batting in its most defiant mood: in 2014, he topped 1000 first-class runs at a distinctly un-21st century strike rate of 36.02, but there was no denying he got the job done. His left-arm spin is another attribute and he fields well. Ansari's resourcefulness, at 23, has led some to hail him as a future Surrey captain.

ESPNcricinfo verdict
Division Two of the Championship should be fascinating this year - and not just because of the presence of KP. Two big guns in Surrey and Lancashire could face strong challenges from Essex, Derbyshire and a Kent side showing signs of life. English cricket is better for a strong Surrey - even more so now they can put on a great T20 show - and if the old timers in the pace attack can stir themselves to support some talented youngsters, promotion is within their grasp.

Bet365 odds: Championship Div 2: 3-1; NatWest Blast: 7-1; Royal London Cup: 8-1

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps