England-opener-in-waiting Rory Burns epitomises Surrey success
Rory Burns has led from the front but Surrey's title is the result of a strong team ethos and contributions from many quarters
Rory Burns says he likes to let his bat do the talking.
Lately, though, it's started to roar and scream.
It's not just that he has scored 345 more runs than anyone else in Division One, it's that he has led - as captain, opening batsman, slip fielder and prolific scorer - his side to their first Championship title in 16 years. In this match Worcestershire, like so many teams before them, found him harder to remove than the travellers who had invaded their overflow car park in recent days - they were gone by sunset - and, in the next few weeks, he will join the likes of Peter May, Adam Hollioake and John Edrich in having a gate at The Oval named in his honour. That's what they do with Championship-winning captains at Surrey.
Burns Gate sounds like a scandal. And perhaps it is. For if Burns is not selected for the England squad this winter, we may as well abandon any pretence that the County Championship is a breeding ground for players. With just about every other contender having been tried and found wanting, Burns has earned his opportunity. As a batsman, as a fielder, as a character, as a leader he has proved himself.
His statistics are compelling. In amassing 1241 runs - 400 more than the next opener in Division One - he has passed 1000 in a Championship season for the fifth year in succession. And, while there have been suggestions that many of his runs have come on flat surfaces at The Oval, he is actually averaging 89 away from home. If we just counted his away runs, Burns' tally of 801 in six matches would make him the fifth-highest run-scorer in the division.
It's true that Burns does not have an especially prepossessing method. His bottom sticks out as if he is abusing square leg, his neck sticks out as if he has a crick in it and he cranes his head before each delivery as if aghast at something the midwicket fielder just said about him. But the man he might replace, Alastair Cook, was hardly beautiful. And nor was his one-time opening partner at Surrey, Graeme Smith. Most consider they did rather well.
Selection doesn't have to be an art or an expression of genius. Sometimes it's just really obvious. Ignoring Burns is too clever by half.
But maybe it was fitting that Morne Morkel hit the winning runs in match that sealed the Championship title. Morkel was a point of difference player this season. In claiming 50 Championship wickets at a cost of 13.96, he has helped Surrey to victory in all eight of the matches in which he has played. As he proved at Trent Bridge (9 for 120 in the match), Scarborough (5 for 39 in the second innings), against Lancashire (when his second-innings 6 for 57 helped his side to a six-run win) and here, at New Road (when 5 for 24 in the second innings turned the match on its head), he had the quality, the fitness and desire to make a difference when his side most required it.
Ahh, but that just shows Surrey bought the title, some will say. Well, yes, they recruited Morkel. Just as, the previous year, Essex identified the spinner Simon Harmer as the high-quality player who could augment their talented squad. Kolpak registrations get a bad press and sometimes quite rightly. But when the players brought in are of this quality, when they lift the standard of the Championship and commit to a club for a concerted period of time, it is hard to argue against them.
Besides, even without Sam Curran, seven of this team were developed through the club's own academy. Several have already gone on to represent England; others will follow. It really is time to reassess the image of Surrey as the magpies of county cricket: they are an exemplary club who manage to both develop players, win matches and sell a vast numbers of tickets. Yes, they will recruit at times, but there are many clubs producing far fewer and recruiting far poorer.
The benefits of a homegrown nucleus are many and obvious. The shared experiences and culture provide a spirit and determination that, on the tough days, can make all the difference. It helps create a sense of team rather than the sense of individuals thrown together and it should, if nurtured, help create a supportive but driven dressing room.
Maybe there was a time when Surrey were arrogant and aloof but those days are long gone. Underlining the extent to which the club respects its past and its role in the future, a contingent of 60 staff and officials are shortly to visit the WWI battlefields and graveyards of France where they will lay wreathes to the 48 men of Surrey CCC who lost their lives in the conflict. "Surrey is different to other clubs," Alec Stewart said. They all say that, of course. But they don't all demonstrate it.
That spirit was demonstrated here by the appearance of Sam Curran, who travelled by train from London, at the ground to support his colleagues. But almost wherever you looked, you found inspiring stories.
There was 36-year-old Rikki Clarke, the second highest-wicket taker for the club in this campaign and the man at the other end when Surrey crossed the line, who was a member of the Championship-winning side of 2002 and has returned to fulfil the role of mature senior pro. There was Stewart, who inherited a grieving and dysfunctional club in 2013 and has created something really quite special. There was Jade Dernbach, who played through the pain of bereavement, saw his record suffer for it and has never breathed a word of complaint. And there was Mark Stoneman, one of those recruits, who has had a pretty grim time of things at moments this season but is now back to something approaching his best. A Burns-Stoneman opening partnership for England at some stage in the next year or two would let down nobody.
To see cricket of this quality, to see so many young, England-qualified players engaged in such a close game and in such a setting, was to be restored and replenished and revitalised
But not everyone who contributed was at New Road. Gareth Batty, who led the team through some of the darkest times in its history, was with the 2nd XI, helping the next generation of players on their journey. He relinquished the captaincy after last season and didn't play a game in this one. But, having given the team stability and direction at a time when many of them were struggling to recover their equilibrium, he was an architect of this success.
And maybe Chris Adams was, too. Yes, Adams' period at Surrey ended badly. But before the Tom Maynard tragedy in June 2012, Adams' Surrey side was starting to head in the right direction. They had won a Lord's final and achieved promotion the previous season. The likes of Burns and the Curran brothers had been identified as pillars of a new team and the future looked exciting. But everything changed after that sad night. In trying to add some maturity to the squad, Adams probably over-compensated with too many senior players. The direction was lost.
Two of those he brought in were Vikram Solanki, now assistant coach, and Batty, however. And a fair number of the younger players were involved in the youth set-up in those days. So Adams did leave some positive legacy at The Oval upon which Graham Ford, Michael Di Venuto and Stewart were able to build.
Even the most ardent Surrey supporter might agree, however, that Worcestershire didn't deserve to lose this game. Just as they don't deserve the relegation that is now almost certain. Despite the absence of the club captain, Joe Leach, they fielded a side containing nine homegrown players in this match. And, for long periods, they looked the better team.
In Josh Tongue and Dillon Pennington - who looked a gem of a prospect on the final day - they have fast bowlers who can go on to serve them, and perhaps England, for a decade and more. In Joe Clarke, who now looks almost certain to leave, they have produced a batsman who will surely play international cricket. Narrow defeats at the hands of Essex, Lancashire and now Surrey are going to cost them, but they are doing a great deal right as a club.
Hopefully, even Worcestershire supporters found this an uplifting day. To see cricket of this quality, to see so many young, England-qualified players engaged in such a close game and in such a setting, to know that our County Championship is working - both in terms of entertainment value and in terms of producing players - was to be restored and replenished and revitalised. The Championship faces many challenges, not least from those charged with protecting it, but, given half a chance, it can still thrive.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo