August 12, 2010

Something stirring down south?

George Dobell
Surrey began the season amid much ridicule, but does their recent form mean Chris Adams has got it right? Meanwhile, Monty is showing the form that made him a premier international spinner

It might be stretching a point to suggest that a giant has woken, but there does, at last, seem to be something stirring at The Oval.

Surrey, once the powerhouse of English cricket, have been a joke for several years. Before this season they had recorded only a single victory in the previous two Championship campaigns, while they also finished 2009 bottom of the 40-over competition and recorded the equal fewest wins in the Twenty20 Cup. For a club with such wealth and history, that's embarrassing.

Their revival isn't screamingly obvious. At the time of writing, they're eighth in the second division table, they exited the FPt20 at the first hurdle, and they face an uphill struggle to qualify from their CB40 group. That's not great, is it?

And yet, if you peer a little closer, there is something emerging at The Oval. After an awful start, they only missed out on Twenty20 progression on run rate; they recently won two Championship games in succession for the first time since 2007; and they've just set a world-record 40-over score. Actually it took them just 38 overs to amass 386 against Glamorgan. There have only been 45 higher totals in the history of limited-overs cricket. Bearing in mind that it has been played over 50, 55, 60 and even 65 overs, that is a remarkable feat.

It was, perhaps, fitting that Rory Hamilton-Brown should have led the way in that record-breaking win. The 22-year-old was a surprise - and controversial - selection as captain. Not only did he seem preposterously young, he was not first choice (Rob Key was among those considered before him), and he was contracted to Sussex. Besides, he had only eight first-class games behind him before this season; there were huge question marks against him as a player, let alone as a leader.

Two-thirds of a season isn't enough time to answer those questions. But the early indications are that Hamilton-Brown has the ability as a player and a leader to help Surrey back up the ladder. Not only did he thrash a 64-ball hundred in that match against Glamorgan, but he's scored two Championship centuries and merged a group of disparate individuals into something resembling a team. There hasn't been anything worthy of the name at The Oval for some time.

"In the last six weeks we've seen a marked improvement," Hamilton-Brown says now. "We're beginning to have a settled side and people are more comfortable with their environment. They know their roles now and they've come together as a group."

Yet when Surrey are bad, they're still really bad. They recently suffered an innings defeat against Middlesex, and at the start of the FPt20 they looked awful.

"Ahh, that Lord's game," he says. "Well, I probably have to hold my hand up and say I got it wrong. It wasn't the best idea to bat first, was it?

"But you're going to get results like that sometimes with a young side. We will lack consistency. But I'd challenge you to name any county that has played so many players aged less than 25. These guys are going to be around for a long time.

"It was the same with Twenty20. We talked about a game plan before it started, but we just hadn't had the time to practise. The first two games hit us like a rocket, but as we began to put our plans into practise, we started to do well. We finished level on points with Hampshire. They're at finals day and we're out. The margins are small.

"Look, we massively started from a low base. Two years ago we won seven games in the season. Last year we won eight games. And this year we've won 17 already. If that isn't progress, I don't know what is. We're building something here and we're building something that can be sustained for years to come."

"Two years ago, we won seven games in the season. Last year we won eight games. And this year, we've won 17 already. If that isn't progress, I don't know what is"
Rory Hamilton-Brown thinks Surrey are heading the right way

He may well be right. Not only does Hamilton-Brown look to be one of the better young batsmen on the circuit, but in the likes of Stuart Meaker - who some claim is the quickest bowler in the country - Jade Dernbach, Steve Davies and Jason Roy, they have the nucleus of a team that could stay together for a decade.

That's not to say Surrey will not be active in the transfer market this winter. They will be. Next winter, too. And despite some cynicism, they recruited pretty well last winter. Davies is clearly a fine keeper-batsman, Gareth Batty is a safe pair of hands and adds backbone to the dressing room, while Chris Tremlett has been a revelation. Outstanding in limited-overs cricket, he's bowled with pace, hostility, stamina and heart. If it's form and not reputation that counts, he'll make the Ashes squad.

"Tremlett has been brilliant," Hamilton-Brown agrees. "I hope he's silenced his doubters. I've not seen anyone quicker this season, and if there's a better limited-overs bowler in the country, I've not seen them."

And what of Hamilton-Brown himself: did he have to think twice when offered the captaincy, and how has he been received by his team-mates?

"I didn't really have to think about it, no," he says. "I'm a no-regrets sort of person. I just felt hugely privileged. I discussed it with a few people close to me, but it wasn't a tough decision. Honestly the hardest thing about it was leaving Sussex. It's a great club and I had a wonderful time there.

"The way I see it, the whole experience should only help me grow as a human. That's what I like about sport: that it teaches us about life and helps us grow and develop. And if I develop as a person, I think it can only make me a better cricketer.

"I was better received than I thought I would be. There was a lot of willingness. Everyone wants to play in a successful side and there was a realisation that a few things had to change. You're going to ask me about Ramps [Mark Ramprakash], aren't you? Well, he's been a massive supporter. He's said publicly that I'm doing a great job, and that's massively appreciated.

"There were a few issues at first. Not issues, exactly, but I was settling into the role. Although Chris [Adams] and I talk to the other coaches - people like Ian Salisbury and Graham Thorpe - about selection, I have the final say on the XI I take on the pitch. So dropping people - especially people that you're close to - can be difficult. But the last month or so, everyone has come together.

"What's surprised me? Surrey seem to have an amazing amount of critics. There are even people in the club who seem to want us to lose, as it gives them an excuse to criticise us more.

"But since the win at Chesterfield, things have come together. We only had two fit bowlers on the last day, but we showed a huge amount of character to come through that adversity. Even Ramps and Batty said they'd not experienced anything like it before. If we keep showing that sort of character, we're going to be a team to reckon with."

A few miles south, there's another revival in progress.

After a miserable couple of years, Monty Panesar has rediscovered some of the magic that once made him an automatic choice for England. While the figures don't quite show it yet - he has 36 championship wickets at 25 apiece - talk from opposition batsmen is that he's back to something approaching his best. Aged just 28, there's no reason he shouldn't have his best days ahead of him.

How has that happened? Well, Panesar's move to Sussex has played a part. While the pitches at Hove no longer offer spinners the encouragement they once did, the club's friendly environment has somehow nurtured Panesar back to life.

That's not to say that Sussex are soft. Far from it. Indeed, it was the tough decision to exclude Panesar from Sussex's Twenty20 side that was partially responsible for the resurgence.

"Monty is a proud man and being left out of the Twenty20 side hurt him," says Sussex director of cricket, Mark Robinson. "He was desperate to play.

"But it gave him a seven-week window to work with the coaches and play some second-team and club cricket. He took some wickets and that's a lovely feeling. He started playing with a smile again and the way the ball is coming out of his hand is really exciting. He gets the ball up and down beautifully. And quickly."

Some cricketers would baulk at the prospect of club cricket. It was, after all, little more than a year ago that Panesar was helping win the Ashes with that famous rearguard at Cardiff. But not Monty. He jumped at the chance.

"It was his idea," says Robinson. "He wanted to play and we wanted to find him a club which would let him bat in the top three. That wasn't easy, but in the end, we found him a spot with Bexhill [who are currently bottom of the Sussex Premier League] and off he went. We didn't want him to do too much bowling - he bowls a huge amount of overs in practice - but he bowled 24 overs the first week. That's Monty: he loves to bowl."

He impressed on and off the pitch at Bexhill. Not only did he take a stack of wickets (17 in his first three games) but, after a slow start (he scored 0, 2 and 6 in his first three innings), he made a half-century in his last game. And he introduced himself to the tea-ladies, exchanged mobile numbers with his team-mates, and helped to bring in the boundary rope and clean up the score box after games. "He did everything right," says the club's chairman, Martin Phillimore.

Not that England teams are selected on good manners. But it does say something about Panesar's willingness to improve that he so readily accepted what could be seen as a no-win challenge of playing club cricket. It reflects well on him that the club hope he'll be available again this weekend.

"Monty had a monumental rise to fame," says Robinson. "A couple of years ago, his face was on the back of packs of Walkers crisps. He came from nowhere and suddenly he was the most recognisable cricketer in the country. And then he had a monumental fall.

"He's been relearning the game, really. He says it's like going back to do A Levels after you've finished your degree.

"Playing for England can cause problems. It's like a drug. Once you've tasted it, you want another fix. Losing his England place has been like a knife wound for Monty. He's really missed it. It's hurt him hugely and he's had to come to terms with that rejection.

"I think he's done that now. He's not chasing England now. He's freed his mind from all that. It's not easy, though. Monty is one of the most recognisable cricketers in the world and everywhere he goes, people talk to him about the Ashes. But he shouldn't be thinking about Graeme Swann or Adil Rashid. He should just concentrate on his batting, bowling, fielding and get back to basics.

"He's not the finished article. He's very naive in limited-overs cricket. He's just played very few games, so that's hardly surprising. And he needs to learn to adapt to different surfaces. People say he has no variation, but it's not true. He has natural variation. He doesn't need a doosra.

"But he's fiercely determined. He works very hard and he's improved in every area of his game. He can bat, he just needs to learn the art of batting. And his fielding has improved, too. When he does play for England again, everyone will see a much more rounded cricketer."

But what about the bowling? Is Monty ready for a return to Test cricket?

"If I were England coach, I'd pick Swann at the moment," admits Robinson. "He bats, he's good at slip and he's a funny character. He's done brilliantly.

"But if you're just talking about spin bowling, then Monty is the best in the country by far. Of course he doesn't offer the same all-round package as Swann, but as a pure spinner, Monty is the best. So if Swann is injured, there's only one spinner I'd go for."