July 1, 2010

Two ways to rebuild a county

George Dobell
A perfect mid-summer day at Chesterfield belies the problems that face Derbyshire and Surrey. Yet, could there be hope for two teams with vastly different resources

On the face of things, this should have been a terrible mis-match. Derbyshire - with a turnover of £2.7 million a year - shouldn't be able to live with Surrey - who have a turnover of £25.5 million a year.

Yet, in the last few days, the teams have contested an intriguing Championship match in the charmingly verdant surrounds of Queen's Park, Chesterfield. With the trees in full bloom and a decent crowd in attendance, it would be easy to conclude that all is well with both clubs.

It is not so. These two teams are, arguably, the worst performing in the country. At the time of writing they occupy the bottom two positions in the second division of the County Championship. They may also be the least popular.

Derbyshire are often referred to as parasites, living off the success of others and barely contributing to the English game, while Surrey are seen as arrogant, bloated under-achievers. It was no surprise that Mark Nicholas included Derbyshire in his list of counties that "exist for no obviously justifiable reason."

"They stumble along the breadline, sustained by money from Sky," said Nicholas. "The balance sheet must determine who lives on."

At first glance, you can see Nicholas' point. The team for Derbyshire's game against Surrey contains only three men born in England and just one born in the county. The club have not won a competition since 1993, they have no representatives in the England or England Lions teams and they haven't produced an England cricketer since the long-departed Ian Blackwell. As a chief executive from another club put it: "They're a disgrace. If they were a school, they'd be in Special Measures." It's a far from atypical view.

The problem with the truth, however, is that it is often a good deal more complicated than the soundbite. Scratch beneath the surface and a somewhat different picture emerges. It doesn't exactly show a thriving club, but it shows one that is rebuilding nicely.

Not only have Derbyshire made a modest profit for each of the last four years, but they have invested in improving their ground without incurring any debt. Vitally, they have also started to produce their own players again. They have fielded five of their own academy graduates this season - Daniel Redfern, Jake Needham, Lee Poynton, Atif Sheikh and Paul Borrington - and have recruited players such as Wayne Madsen (South African born, but the holder of an Italian passport) and Chesney Hughes (a 19-year-old from Anguilla) who could go on to represent England. While it's hard to see them challenging for the Championship - they last won it in 1936 - the situation is far less black and white than Nicholas suggests.

It is also interesting that Nicholas should have omitted to mention his own county. Hampshire is a club with many admirable qualities. But it is also debt-laden and, in recent years, has produced fewer England players than Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Northamptonshire. Like Derbyshire, Hampshire have signed foreign-born players (Lumb, Pietersen and Mascarenhas, for example) who had the potential to represent England. And, should Rod Bransgrove tire of his role as benefactor, then Hampshire really would be 'stumbling along the breadline.' As their own accounts put it "the Group continues to rely on the support of its bankers."

From a personal perspective, the most disappointing aspect of Nicholas' comments is that they betray a rather sad, world-weary cynicism. You see, it was an article by Nicholas, a beautiful, almost elegiac celebration of the strength and diversity of English cricket that he penned upon his retirement as a player, that inspired me to become a cricket writer. I pity him his lost enthusiasm.

"If Nicolas had made his comments a few years ago, we'd have had very little defence," admits Derbyshire's chief executive, Keith Loring. "The club was in a mess. But we've come a long way in a short period of time. We absolutely understand that we're charged with producing England players. But we've had to come from a standing start and, over the next four years, you'll see things develop.

"I just ask the question: why has this come up now? Is it because of the debts incurred by the Test Match hosting grounds? Is that why some want to see fewer counties?

"It just disappoints me that some guy in London talks about a subject without doing his research. He hasn't phoned me and I'm not aware that he's visited the ground. He has a view that's rooted in the past and has no real knowledge of what we're doing."

Derbyshire's director of cricket, Jon Morris, is somewhat more direct. "I think Mark Nicolas is a prat and I've thought that for a long time," he says. "Look, I inherited a club in a mess. At one stage we didn't win a home championship game for four years. We were rubbish.

Over time you will see more local players in our team and, over time, you'll see us push our way out of this division. But remember, we've only won four trophies in our history. My budget is half of Chris Adams'
John Morris spells out the difference in the county game

"It takes time to turn that around," says Morris, who assumed his job midway through the 2007 season. "Over time you will see more local players in our team and, over time, you'll see us push our way out of this division. But remember, we've only won four trophies in our history. My budget is half of Chris Adams'.

"Yes, we have several foreign born players in the side. But who is to say that they won't go on to play for England? Chesney Hughes, for example, may have been born in the Caribbean, but he has abundant talent, a British passport and the desire to represent England.

"I have to strike a balance between fielding a competitive team and producing England players. Yes, I could just throw all our academy boys out there and avoid any of this criticism. But it's not fair for them if they're not ready and it won't help them if they come into a side that is thrashed every time they play. It won't help the overall standard of county cricket, either.

"There is a role for us. We've taken on the likes of Graham Wagg and John Clare, who were unwanted at their previous counties, and given them a chance to forge a career in the game. They could both play for England. Lee Goddard and Wes Durston, who struggled to get a place elsewhere, could also go on and become good players.

"Perhaps, instead of a salary cap, there should be a player cap. Perhaps each county should only be allowed to register 18 players. The 20th guy on Surrey's staff could be just what we're looking for at Derbyshire.

"But whatever happens, I'm not going to pick a side just to please some prat in London. We used to be a pushover but now you have to play bloody well to beat Derbyshire. The next step is to start winning a few more games. But we're going in the right direction and, in the next few years, everyone will see that."

Perhaps surprisingly, for a club with vastly more resources, many of Morris' sentiments are echoed by Adams. Both men inherited failing systems; both are taking the long-term view towards building lasting success; both are under pressure to deliver. Interestingly, both men also talked to Brian Lara in recent weeks about a short-term move before deciding not to pursue it.

"The way I see it," Adams says, "taking over at Surrey was like trying to perform a handbrake turn on a cruise liner. I slammed the breaks on and there has been a lot of grumbling from the engines. It'll take time to turn things around. I've only just started, really. The first year was all about assessing and clearing out, and this season is the first that has been about rebuilding.

"Am I under pressure? Of course. But there's nothing new in that. I've been under pressure for the last 23 years. Whether I've been a player, a captain or a coach, there's always been pressure.

"Will the club stick with me? You'd have to ask them. But I always said this was a job that would take between three and five years and I don't see that anything has happened to change that. Yes, we're bottom in one competition at the moment, but we won't finish the season there. Definitely. We've recruited well and we're developing.

"I'm not apologising for the position Surrey find themselves in. You have to take into account the state the club was in when I came in: Surrey was on its knees. It was a dysfunctional club. And overnight miracles were never part of the plan.

"Of course I'm disappointed with our position in the Championship. But it shouldn't surprise me. I just think back to my time at Sussex. We came bottom in just about everything in 2000 and the chairman, Don Trangmar, was under pressure to make changes. But he stuck with me as captain and Peter Moores as coach and, a short while later, the club enjoyed the best period in its history.

"Surrey won one game last season. So, if we win three or four this time, I'd say that showed considerable progress. Are there splits in the dressing room? Well, I wouldn't believe everything you read on internet message boards!

"Look, I've challenged these players like they've never been challenged before. There's been a massive change of culture at the club. And most of them have bought into it completely. But do you ever have a situation where there is 100% buy-in? I don't think so. Some people just don't like change. I'd say there's probably 20% who have resisted. So yes, you'll see players leave and you'll see us recruit some more. Quality recruitment will remain an important part of our strategy.

"But producing our own players is vital. And we are doing that. Rory Hamilton-Brown, Jason Roy, Stuart Meaker, Matthew Spriegel, Jade Dernbach and Arun Harinath all came though our system. Matthew Dunn is going to be a good quick bowler, too. And it won't be too long 'til one of them breaks through and plays for England. I've always said I see my role as 50% about producing success for Surrey and 50% about producing players for England.

"If you want instant success, you can bring in three or four Kolpaks and an overseas coach. But you'll end up with a soul less environment. I know Surrey have a bit of a reputation. There's a lot of jealousy out there, isn't there? And we seem to have a label. We're accused of all sorts of things

"But, just in the last two or three weeks, I've begun to see signs that things are coming together. We're creating the right environment here and it will help the club enjoy lasting success. Sometimes I go home and think 'have I done everything I can to improve things?' And when I answer 'yes' to myself, that can be frustrating.

"The currency is time. I need a bit of time and a bit of patience. Yes, maybe it will take a bit longer, but I can't honestly say I'd do anything differently. We're going in the right direction."

Some will react for cynicism to the plea for more time. The danger with long-term plans is that they can be used as an excuse for a lack of demonstrable progress. Sometimes deadlines focus the mind. But, from the position in which both clubs found themselves, it was always going to take time to turn things around. And a long-term plan is surely better than change born of panic.

Ultimately both men will be judged by results. Adams, in particular, is expected to deliver trophies. For he to whom much is given, much is expected. And Adams has been given plenty. But if it was right to appoint him 18 months ago, it is surely right to stick with him now.

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