Sunday, 28 April 2013

Oval pitches - what's the story?

There has been much written over the past few days (and not just by me) about the state of pitches at the Oval in light of the two championship matches so far. We have yet to see a game reach the fourth innings and of a possible 80 wickets, just 53 have fallen across eight days of cricket.

To say its been a batsman's paradise doesn't quite do it justice. There have been five hundreds already, including Luke Wells' double last week, not to mention three scores in the nineties. All in all both games have seen over a thousand runs scored despite overs being lost to rain. Bowlers have had to toil through, on average, almost 13 overs for each wicket and those have come at a cost of 41 runs apiece. That said, it's hardly been one for the stroke-makers, the run rate across both games has only just nudged over three an over.

It's almost been the worst of both worlds. The bowlers have struggled to get anything out of an unresponsive surface but meanwhile the batsmen have hardly been clattering the ball to all parts, its been a slow grind rather than free-flowing.

There have been an unusually high number of comings and goings in the post of head groundsman at the Oval since 2010, when Bill Gordon retired. He was a tough act to follow, having been on the staff in some capacity since 1964 and head groundsman since 2003. He has remained at the club in an advisory capacity but is no longer the main man where pitch preparation is concerned. He was replaced in 2011 by Scott Patterson, who then departed a year later. In April 2012 Lee Fortis, an assistant head groundsman under Bill Gordon, was appointed and he's still in post today.

Under Patterson's tenure the pitches were pretty sporting, especially for seamers. One match that sticks in the mind is the game against Leicestershire in May 2011 when we fielded four frontline seamers (yes, I'm afraid I do count Yasir Arafat as a frontline seamer) and Dernbach and Meaker shared 15 wickets between them. We won that match at a canter by 215 runs. Over the course of the 2011 season Surrey seamers took their wickets at a cost of 26.9 runs apiece. Of course the opposition was weaker given that we were then in Division Two, but nonetheless the pitches seemed better for the quick bowler.

Since then things have got slightly tougher for the seamers, but only slightly. In 2012 their wickets came at 27.5 but actually at a fractionally better strike rate than in 2011. What is notable in late 2011 and 2012 is how much more spin friendly the Oval became. Pragyan Ojha's scintillating 10-90 against Derbyshire in September 2011 seems to have precipitated a move to much dryer pitches.

Murali Kartik was duly signed for the latter part of 2012 and twice we saw both he and Gareth Batty deployed at home. And to good effect to as in those two matches they took 25 wickets between them. Across 2012 spinners took 40 wickets at the Oval at the impressive average of just 20. That compares to a 2010 average of just under 40 and in 2011 it was 29.

When Gary Keedy was signed at the end of last season Chris Adams said that two spinners at home was likely more often than not. In fact he said Keedy would've struggled to find a county more committed to a two spinner policy than Surrey. And yet that policy has been abandoned after just one fixture, what gives?

The exceptionally cold early spring weather will likely have made pitch preparation tough, but having said that in Middlesex's fixture at Lord's in mid-April all but one wicket fell to seamers as Toby Roland-Jones and Co. made hay. Meanwhile at the Oval both seamers and spinners alike have found little assistance. As I said yesterday we are always going to struggle to challenge the best teams come September if we cannot force the issue at home.

Given our attack, strong in seam and strong in spin, I would be satisfied with a pitch prepared to suit either. Though I must confess a slight personal preference for fast bowling attacks - and we are blessed with some mighty fine examples of those at Surrey - but that's by the by. What we have at the moment is a pitch prepared for the batsman, and some pretty gritty cricket to boot. Perhaps the square needs to be relaid, or perhaps we just need a bit more luck with the weather, but one way or the other we need to do something a bit different if we want to make our way up the Championship table.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Two draws in two

Well at least we're unbeaten. Some unpredictable weather and a turgid pitch contributed to a largely unsatisfactory day's cricket at the Oval. As expected the game ended in a draw.

We've now had two games at the Oval, neither game has reached the fourth innings and there have been two declarations. We simply cannot hope to get near winning the County Championship preparing pitches like this. Relying on being unbeatable at home and getting wins away is a very strange approach indeed.

The day began with captain Smith and Gary Wilson at the crease. Smith moved on to 67 before he was bowled by Panesar. It will have been a relief for him to get in the runs at the third attempt. His dismissal brought Solanki to the crease and he and Wilson calmed any nerves with a solid partnership. Solanki didn't always look his fluent best but neither did he offer up any chances.

Wilson meanwhile continued on his merry way before he was out shortly after reaching his second 50+ score of the match, patting a simple caught and bowled back to Nash. Before that mistake he looked especially good against the spinners, cutting and sweeping sweetly. He was an emergency solution at number three but boy has he taken his chance. I think Harinath should remain in that spot when he recovers from injury but Wilson has shown he is comfortable in the top order.

Zander de Bruyn played something of a nothing innings. He made his way to 26 without alarm before he was lbw to Luke Wells' part time spin. I struggle to see why we shouldn't take a bit of a gamble and select Tom Jewell ahead of de Bruyn, especially given Gary Wilson's form. Jewell is a promising young player but we'll never know if he's got what it takes until we try. De Bruyn is a fine player who's served us well, but Jewell could be the future.

Part time bowlers have made hay in this game with wickets for Nash, Solanki and Wells. In fact Wells picked up his second wicket not long after his first as Solanki inexplicably pulled a horrible long hop straight to Jordan at deep mid wicket. He won't be satisfied with the manner in which he got out, but 130+ runs in the match is a decent return.

Roy and Davies saw Surrey to tea without further damage. The lead was approaching 100, and with five wickets in hand and only 30 overs left in the day it would've taken a feat of super human stupidity to lose the match from there. In any case the rain intervened and six overs were lost. Roy and Davies returned after the break and forged a 50 partnership at almost 7 an over against the new ball, playing some lovely shots in the process. Shortly thereafter though spin was brought on and hands were shaken on the draw shortly before 5pm

Its hard not to feel cheated by the placid nature of the pitch, but we have faced two strong sides and looked at least their equal for the most part. Middlesex at Lord's is next up, given how that went last year, it ought to be quite a test.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Tense final day ahead as Sussex move into command

Surrey will enter the final day 109 runs behind their opponents with nine second innings wickets still intact but the South London weather may play more of a role towards the end of this game than Sussex would like.

England fans have become accustomed to big second innings knocks from Graeme Smith and another tomorrow would come in very handy indeed. He survived the 17 overs before the close with ease and will resume on 43. If the rain doesn't arrive, as it is forecast to do in patches, Surrey and Smith will have to endure a tense couple of sessions. The wicket still held few worries for the batsmen so it ought to be only pressure that will tell on Surrey.

Sussex resumed on 204-2 this morning in pursuit of a big first innings score. Having progressed slowly yesterday they knew they'd have to up the pace on the third day, and they did just that from the word go. 27 runs were scored in the first seven overs of the day as the new ball raced off the bat as it often does. Interestingly it was Tim Linley rather than Chris Tremlett that Graeme Smith tossed the new ball to. It was just reward for the pick of the bowlers and hopefully he's now done enough to earn himself a regular place in the side.

There was however no breakthrough for the bowlers as Wells and Joyce continued to accumulate runs at a good pace. Joyce was dropped on 69, offering a very tough chance to Gary Wilson but that aside there were few alarms. Joyce had moved serenely on to 98 when Gareth Batty broke through almost out of nowhere - as he had done last week with the wicket of Alviro Petersen in the 90s.

After a short spell of rain Sussex again looked to pick up the pace. They couldn't have hoped for a better man to do so than Matt Prior. He duly delivered a 36 ball 50 (having been dropped on 18 by Solanki) and by the time he was out to the bowling of Dernbach Sussex had established a lead of 40. Luke Wells had meanwhile moved to a quite superb double hundred, he's now scored 28% of his first class runs against Surrey.

Although Hamilton-Brown, Ben Brown and Chris Jordan kept the score moving Sussex may feel slightly disappointed that they didn't force their lead to the 200 mark, rather than the 175 they eventually reached. Nonetheless they were well ahead in the match with a day and half a session to play. On a side note, Chris Tremlett's solitary wicket (that of Monty Panesar) in 28 overs was not the dramatic return to first class cricket many had hoped for. The Surrey seamers will be wondering when the wickets at the Oval might start to offer them a bit more assistance.

When Rory Burns was caught behind off the bowling of Steve Magoffin Surrey fans could have been forgiven for fearing the worst. However first innings hero Gary Wilson and captain Smith saw the side safely to close on 66 for 1.

If a full day's play is possible tomorrow could be a fascinating day. There's no hope of anything other than a draw or a Sussex win, but there's still a lot of cricket to be played.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Wells' touch of class puts Surrey in the shade

It was a day of gripping, attritional cricket at the Oval today as Sussex worked hard to grind out a good foundation. They ended the day on 204 for 2 and are in danger of making Surrey's 351 all out look decidedly below par.

The morning session began with Surrey on 301-7 and searching for a fourth batting point. The men at the crease, Batty and Tremlett began well, moving the score along at a good pace. However Batty was caught off the bowling of Jordan for another dogged 37 (his best score since 2011) and Linley was clean bowled by the former Surrey man. With just six deliveries left in which to secure that elusive batting point Tremlett hoiked Chris Jordan for an enormous six to take the score to 351. The next ball however Jordan cleaned up Tremlett and in the process collected his first ever five wicket haul at the Oval. Even before Sussex had batted the Surrey total only looked par at best.

The Sussex innings began cautiously against some disciplined bowling from Dernbach and Tremlett. They looked to be coasting to lunch without alarm when Tim Linley, bizarrely introduced into the attack after Zander de Bruyn, trapped Chris Nash lbw in the final over before the break.

After lunch Luke Wells, who just loves batting against Surrey, set about building the score with Mike Yardy. Their partnership had reached 78 before Gareth Batty's golden arm intervened. I've lost count of the number of times Batty has been the man to break a big partnership. Wells though stood firm and joined by his captain, Ed Joyce, he began to build again.

The pair accumulated slowly but surely and were both still at the crease at the end of the day's play. Wells unbeaten on a fine 108, recording his third hundred in three Championship matches against Surrey. Precisely 50% of all his first class hundreds have been against us. For Alviro Petersen last week, read Luke Wells this. The Surrey bowlers will be sick of the sight of him.

Sussex are still some way shy of Surrey's first innings total, but they have a heck of a platform to build on tomorrow. With a solid base under them the trio next to come in - Hamilton-Brown, Matt Prior and Ben Brown can afford to play with more freedom. Because of the pace of Sussex's innings their best chance to force a result is to ensure they only bat once and then chuck the ball to Monty. And with plenty of batting to come, that's not looking too far fetched at this stage.

Its possible of course that Sussex could replicate Surrey's middle order collapse of yesterday, where we lost four wickets for 30 runs. In fact the respective positions of the sides after 80 overs are broadly similar. With a new ball to come in the morning, and a day slightly less conducive to batting we can still drag ourselves back into contention. Our seamers bowled well today without much reward, particularly Tim Linley who makes the batsman play more often than not and deserved better figures than the 1-23 from 13 overs he ended up with. 

As ever the first session tomorrow will be crucial. If Wells and Joyce can see off the new ball Surrey will be under huge pressure, but if we can get among the wickets quickly Sussex may begin to feel the pressure.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Unchanged squad for Sussex but Meaker a doubt

Surrey have named an unchanged squad for this week's game with Sussex at the Oval. The team that takes the field is likely to look different though as Stuart Meaker's thigh strain makes him an unlikely starter.

The 13 names and a possible XI:

Graeme Smith
Rory Burns
Arun Harinath
Vikram Solanki
Zander de Bruyn
Steven Davies
Gary Wilson
Gareth Batty
Chris Tremlett
Tim Linley
Jade Dernbach

Twelfth men: Gary Keedy, Stuart Meaker

One question mark over the final XI remains - does Chris Adams persist with the twin-spin attack that faced Somerset last week or does he change tack and opt for the extra seamer. Much will depend on what kind of pitch is being prepared. Adams will probably have been disappointed with the extent to which the pitch deteriorated last week, or rather, didn't deteriorate. Even as the match drew to a close the spinners found little regular turn and Jos Buttler was still making hay at 4.30pm on Saturday afternoon. The sunshine over the weekend and at the start of this week may have persuaded him that two spinners could still work. Either way, it seems certain that Tim Linley will get a first start of the season since Chris Tremlett is only likely to play in place of Keedy, not as well as him.

I am disappointed that Jason Roy, batting today for the Second XI, still can't find space in the squad. Zander de Bruyn's ability with the ball seemingly keeping him in the side for another game. Graeme Smith will want to get off the mark for his new club with a score of note, and Harinath and Wilson will also want to make an impact.

Inevitably it will be hard to ignore the two players in the opposition squad making their returns to the Oval this week. Chris Jordan, who made such an impressive start to his Sussex career two weeks ago, and Rory Hamilton-Brown, our former captain, will draw much of the attention. Personally I hope both are given a good reception. Whatever you might think about how their careers at the Oval ended, they're talented young players deserving of their latest chance.

Sussex won their first game against a fancied Yorkshire side emphatically two weeks ago by an innings and 12 runs. Their batting, spearheaded by Ed Joyce and Chris Nash is solid rather than spectacular, but they will be boosted by the presence of England wicket-keeper Matt Prior. Similarly their bowling attack is low key but no less effective for it. Its hard to think of a more effective but less heralded opening bowling partnership than Steve Magoffin and James Anyon in county cricket, ably backed up by Jordan and the best spinner in England not called Graeme Swann. Monty's presence may also enter in to Adams' thinking about pitch-preparation.

Despite Buttler's near-hundred at the end of the Somerset game Surrey probably ended the contest in the ascendancy which should hopefully give the side some momentum this week. Two hundreds and two five fors in the first game is not to be sniffed at, and I hope they can build on the undoubted positives uncovered in the first fixture. Sussex remain a dangerous side capable of beating any side in Division One, so a strong performance is a must.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Azhar Mahmood - a welcome return?

Apologies for being a little bit slow off the mark on this one. I'm sure it escaped no one's attention that during the Somerset game the signing of Azhar Mahmood for this year's Twenty20 Cup was announced. Or should I say re-signing of Azhar Mahmood, since he played for us between 2002 and 2007.

My initial reaction to Azhar's signing was positive. He seems to tick all the boxes - he's a big hitting lower-middle order batsman, something that we've been missing for an awfully long time. He's a seam bowling allrounder who has a solid record of bowling in powerplays and at the death. He's also massively experienced - 171 matches puts him eighth on the all time list.

Furthermore, he's England-qualified, so he can take the field with Smith and Ponting. Azhar is undoubtedly one of those "x-factor" players capable of turning a single match in the space of an over or two with bat or ball, and I wouldn't be in the slightest bit surprised to see him do that for us. Finally, its prudent to have a bit of bowling cover should one or all of Meaker, Dernbach or Tremlett be called away on England duty.

So what's not to like about the return of a player who played such a big part in Surrey's early success in this format? I would just sound a note of caution on a few counts.

Firstly, he's 38. Now with age comes the aforementioned experience and experience is not something we'll be wanting for this season. It is feasible, if not perhaps all that likely, that all of Azhar (38), Ponting (39), Batty (35), Keedy (38), Solanki (36) and de Bruyn (37) could be considered for the T20 side. Certainly Mahmood, Ponting and Batty are all very likely to play a significant part in the campaign. The age profile of the Surrey squad is starting to look very odd indeed. Is so many creaking bodies such a good idea for the shortest format?

But so what, I hear you cry. We've fielded very young sides in the past and its got us nowhere near winning the thing, so this year's approach may well serve us better.

For argument's sake let's set aside the issue of age. This is, after all, the age of equality (or something like that). What about Azhar's recent T20 numbers? I thought I was going to find some very respectable figures but if we look at the current IPL, the South African T20 and last year's T20 Cup its not all that rosy. Including the game he's playing today, Azhar has snared eight IPL wickets in six games at a respectable run rate of 7. But his batting returns are poor, just 23 runs in five innings thus far. In last year's T20 Cup he took 10 wickets at 21 in eight games but again with the bat the numbers do not live up to the reputation - 110 runs at 13, and a strike rate below 100. His performance in South Africa was marginally better, 91 runs at 15 and a strike rate of 116, but still not what we've come to expect from him. Certainly some way below the average of 31 he managed for Surrey in his last stint at the club.

However even if you set aside his advancing years and his somewhat declining statistics there's the nagging feeling that he'll be taking the place of a younger man in the side. I'll always hold Azhar in very high regard for what he delivered for the club but given the players already on our books isn't it time we looked to the future again? What of Tom Jewell, given a contract extension at the end of 2012 but overlooked for the 37 year old Zander de Bruyn in the first Championship game, and now almost certainly squeezed out of the T20 side this year with Azhar's arrival. Dirk Nannes, all of 36 years old, played several games ahead of Stuart Meaker last season. I'd hate to see the same thing happen this time round.

Azhar may help us in progressing to the latter stages of this year's T20 but if we are genuinely looking to build a side to "dominate" English cricket in the future, are we going about it in the best way?

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Creditable draw for Surrey on disappointing final day

Neither captain seemed overly keen to manufacture a result on the final day of Surrey's opening Championship fixture and they shook hands on the draw late in the day.

When four wickets went down before lunch there was hope that the home side could force an unlikely win. However a frustrating partnership between Petersen (who else?) and Buttler wrested back some of the initiative for Somerset. I thought that Smith's decision to open the bowling with de Bruyn after lunch was an odd one, given that a wicket at that point would've surely given the opposition some serious jitters.

As it was, Petersen and Buttler continued to accumulate. Batty eventually broke Petersen's resolve with a wicket almost out of nowhere. But it wasn't until Keedy was withdrawn from the attack in favour of Meaker that things really started to happen again. Having earlier taken the wickets of Compton and Trescothick he then added Trego, Thomas and Overton in quick succession in the afternoon session to complete his five-for. It was a drastic improvement on his day one bowling but nonetheless I've still seen Meaker bowl far better than he did today. Worryingly he didn't return to the field after the tea break so he must be a doubt for next week's game.

When Petersen fell there were still more than 40 overs left in the game and Somerset were 211 runs ahead. There was more than enough time to at least have a sighter at a result, but perhaps neither captain wanted to risk kicking off the season with a defeat. Or maybe Trescothick wanted Buttler to get his season off and running with a hundred. Either way it was disappointing to see the game fizzle out the way it did.

Given the position his side were in on Thursday evening Smith may be the happier of the two skippers today, but there are still issues to be ironed out. The feeble batting at the start of our first innings which necessitated a bit of a go-slow thereafter will be a concern.

The selection of two spinners didn't turn out to be the right one, but I'm not sure I'd place the blame squarely at Chris Adams' door for that. The pitch was pretty solid for batting even as the match drew to a close so two, three, four or more spinners probably wouldn't have made much difference. Indeed across the 300+ overs in the match only 5 wickets fell to spin at 64 runs apiece, while seamers took 23 at 27. Adams was doubtless expecting a dry surface that would bring the spinners into their own on days three and four. That didn't materialise and in any case we didn't win the toss so would not have been best placed to take advantage.

In addition, Gary Keedy had a pretty poor debut when you consider his pedigree, his bowling today was particularly disappointing and if I was Adams I'd be tempted to go with three seamers (one of whom should be Tremlett), Batty and Tom Jewell for the next game. Zander de Bruyn should make way, as well as Keedy and I'd give serious consideration to preferring Roy over Solanki. Apart from Roy's form with the bat we looked a little lethargic in the field and he'd certainly help in that department.

In light of Keedy's form I also think we should play more to our strengths and prepare a wicket for the seamers. To the outsider it might seem odd that a club who has the services of Meaker, Dernbach, Linley, Tremlett, Lewis, Dunn and Edwards to call on prefer to try and prepare a spinner's wicket in April. Our next game is against Sussex and good side though they are, we should be confident of out-gunning their seam bowling unit. Plus in Monty Panesar they have a very dangerous spinner.

So many changes would suggest panic but that's not the case, there are positives to be drawn from this game. We didn't lose after being in a precarious position, and against good quality opposition (though we will face stronger bowling units for sure). Rory Burns has picked up where he left off in 2012, Steven Davies looks to be back to his best and Jade Dernbach made a superb start to his Championship campaign against one of the strongest batting lineups in the country.

Oh and those Doric columns on the pavilion are looking very impressive. Roll on round two.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Dogged Surrey fight back well on day three

My assertion yesterday that Surrey's faltering batsmen would need to rely on the rain to survive in this match was not only overly pessimistic, but proven quite wrong by an impressive batting effort today. The day ended with Surrey having declared on 366, 18 runs behind in order to have a couple of overs at the opposition under the evening cloud cover.

The day began with the home team in a precarious position and with one eye on the follow on target. But once the wicket keeping pair of Rory Burns and Steven Davies had settled down in the face of some disciplined bowling the panic ebbed away. The pace was not electrifying from either player but while both are capable of aggressive strokeplay, that was not what the situation demanded. Both players played the situation expertly and gradually built a sizeable partnership.

The pair took the team to lunch safely still only two wickets down. Somerset continued to search for a wicket after lunch but it wasn't till the 92nd over that Burns and Davies were parted - and even then it was gifted somewhat as Burns strangled one down the leg side for a superb 115. He really is starting to look like a very special player. The partnership had reached 159 - the biggest of the match and Surrey were out of serious peril. There was work still to be done and although Gary Wilson didn't make the most of his chance at number seven today, Gareth Batty ensured that Surrey proceeded carefully towards first innings parity. He was eventually out for 36 off 86 balls to the bowling of Overton and the job was all but done. Steven Davies confirmed his return to form today with a expertly compiled 147 - he was last man out. I sense this year he'll be of enormous value to Surrey.

With time running out in the game and some very solid sunshine expected tomorrow, Smith elected to give the Somerset openers a test under the lights this evening. However neither Dernbach or Meaker were able to make a breakthrough in the 12 balls they had. Somerset will resume tomorrow on 6-0.

On a slow, flat pitch which has shown little sign of breaking up its hard to see anything other than a draw in this game, but stranger things have happened. A full 96 overs will be possible tomorrow and if the seamers get amongst the wickets early there could be life in the game yet. Its frustrating that on a pitch we deemed suitable to play two spinners, only two wickets have fallen to spin bowling in nearly 250 overs. We'll need to work on pitch preparation if that's our chosen modus operandi.

Today was a very stoical and characterful performance from Surrey. Where they could have wilted in the face of probing bowling they stood firm. It will stand them in good stead for a tough season to come.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Somerset put the squeeze on disappointing Surrey

Graeme Smith's tenure as captain of Surrey was in danger of getting off to an ignominious start as Surrey closed a rain-interrupted day two on 98 for 4, 286 runs behind.

In fact Surrey may have to look to the heavens for salvation from now on in this game, the forecast for tomorrow at least holds some hope for them in that respect. All is of course not yet lost but a match that looked hard to win yesterday now looks nigh on impossible. Saving the match is probably Surrey's only hope.

They began today needing two quick wickets and while they didn't come quick enough (it took an hour and the addition of 40 runs to Somerset's total) it was better than some of our recent efforts to finish of tail-ends. Dernbach continued his excellent work from yesterday and made Thomas his fifth victim with a patented slower ball. Meaker, who was yanked from the attack early on by Smith then returned to collect the final wicket.

Somerset's total, while not massive was still imposing and Surrey needed a solid 15 overs to take them to lunch unscathed. They didn't deliver. Smith's debut lasted just three deliveries as he edged a good Peter Trego delivery to Hildreth at slip and on the stroke of lunch Arun Harinath was out to Alfonso Thomas in the same fashion. 30 for 2 would not have made for an especially pleasant lunch time for the home team.

After lunch Rory Burns, who had stood firm in the pre-lunch melee, was joined by Vikram Solanki and they steadily built a 50 partnership. However on 30 Solanki was bowled by Jamie Overton and his replacement, Zander de Bruyn, didn't last long. Four balls in fact, for just one run. He got himself out to a shot that Cricinfo's George Dobell described as "so bad I thought he was Jade Dernbach". Encouraging. Perhaps selecting a man who hadn't faced a delivery since early February wasn't such a good idea after all.

Four wickets down with only 87 runs on the board Burns and Davies needed to see Surrey to the close without further damage. Mercifully they did and Surrey will resume on 98-4 tomorrow morning. With rain forecast from midday onwards tomorrow, their job may be made a little easier for them.

It's worth noting that Burns, just 22 years old, is now averaging north of 50 from his last 13 innings. Not half bad for an opening batsman in Division One. If all of the top order batsmen showed the application he did today we'd be in a far better position. Unless the rain does come, his fellow wicket keepers Davies and Gary Wilson will need to help him out if Surrey are to have any hope in this fixture.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Dernbach rescues Surrey from chastening day

Two performances stand out on day one of Surrey's County Championship campaign. Jade Dernbach, who returned figures of 4-42 on a generally unresponsive pitch and Alviro Petersen. Again.

Chris Adams opted for a four man attack with two spinners and no room for Chris Tremlett. It seems that the coach was, not unreasonably, unwilling to risk the England seamer as one of only two front line seamers. Dernbach was preferred to Linley despite the latter's superior returns in pre-season, and as expected Meaker joined him. Given the set up of the side it was an important toss to win...the toss was duly lost and Somerset elected to bat first.

Petersen, a winter recruit for Somerset, had a superb day and took his average against Surrey to 104, and his average at the Oval to 125 as he led his side to 344 for 8. Things had not looked so rosy for the West Country side when just 1 run was scored in the first five overs, and even that was a leg bye. Matters got worse for them as Compton was bowled for a duck by a rapid Dernbach yorker, and he had Petersen in real trouble first ball with a slower ball. This was part of an exceptional opening spell which gave him figures of 1-5 from five overs. His new ball partner Meaker had considerably less success on an unusually poor day for him despite a wicket late in the day. Meaker generally bowled too much on the batsman's legs and was punished.

After Compton's departure Hildreth and Trescothick set about building but the captain fell in Gareth Batty's first over to reduce Somerset to 58-2. By the 20th over it was spin at both ends, almost unheard of so early in the season. The placid nature of the day one pitch was laid bare once Dernbach's testing spell was done and Hildreth comfortably took the side to lunch with Petersen on 115-2.

Dernbach returned to bowl Hildreth in the first over after lunch, bringing Craig Kieswetter to the crease. He and Petersen formed an excellent partnership of 143, threatening to bat Surrey out of the match. It was a dogged bowling effort from Surrey and chiefly Dernbach to drag Somerset back from 260-3 to 344-8 by the close. It was however Batty, partnership breaker extraordinaire, who snared the wicket of Kieswetter just six overs before the new ball was due but when it arrived Dernbach re-entered the fray with the wickets of Buttler and Trego in consecutive balls. Zander de Bruyn,  Surrey's third seamer in this game, finally trapped Petersen lbw a couple of overs before the close and Meaker clean bowled Jamie Overton to end the day on a more positive note.

To have any chance of a positive result in this game Surrey really need the pitch to start taking turn - which given the selection of two spinners it surely will. Unfortunately for them Somerset now have almost 350 runs on the board, a couple of wickets still in hand and a decent spinner of their own. Besides the remaining Somerset wickets Surrey first need to knuckle down and grind out a big total. Such was Somerset's scoring rate that even if Surrey reach parity there's still time for a result.  Graeme Smith has a fight on his hands in his first match as captain.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Squad named for Somerset opener

Chris Adams has named his first Surrey squad of 2013, 13 brave men who will face Marcus Trescothick's Somerset side at the Oval starting tomorrow.

Graeme Smith has recovered from the ankle injury he picked up playing for South Africa and Gareth Batty has recovered from the side strain which kept him out of the Second XI game last week so there are no injury worries whatsoever. The squad and possible XI is as follows:

Graeme Smith
Rory Burns
Arun Harinath
Vikram Solanki
Zander de Bruyn
Steven Davies
Gary Wilson
Gareth Batty
Stuart Meaker
Chris Tremlett
Tim Linley

12th men: Gary Keedy, Jade Dernbach

There would seem to be three possible variants for the starting XI, with the above being most likely in my opinion. Playing three seamers and de Bruyn means that you can manage Chris Tremlett's bowling up to a point but you still have the insurance of batting well down to number seven. Gary Wilson has more than earned his chance to bat there, though it is very disappointing to see Jason Roy miss out after a very solid pre-season. I can't help thinking we may live to regret prioritising Vikram Solanki's experience over a concerted effort to develop Roy's game a couple of years down the line. Which of Dernbach or Linley plays in the end is anybody's guess, but Linley had the better pre-season, in terms of wickets at least. There is always the chance that Adams will prefer Keedy over Batty as well, though even with a strong top seven that would leave quite a tail.

The second option would be to play a four man attack, as above, but with two spinners. Adams committed to playing two spinners wherever possible, and almost always at the Oval, but such an attack would surely be too much of a gamble with Tremlett's fitness. Of course, they could prefer Dernbach or Linley to Tremlett which may allay that concern.

The final option would be a five man attack enabling both Batty and Keedy to be fielded as well as three seamers. While this is the option most readily able to deal with Somerset's much-vaunted top order, I think the batting would be deemed too thin. I would also have expected Lewis to be named in the squad, to bolster the lower order, if a five man attack was being considered.

The top six is more or less set in stone given the 13 selected, that much we know. I can't be alone in eagerly anticipating Graeme Smith walking out to bat wearing Surrey colours for the first time. I'm also excited to see whether Solanki, de Bruyn and Davies can muster the runs their combined talents warrant.

Somerset have not yet officially named a squad but a top order of Trescothick, Alviro Petersen, Compton, Hildreth, Kieswetter, Buttler and Trego is all but certain. Whatever the make up of the attack, getting that lot out twice isn't going to be easy. There is a question mark over the effectiveness of their bowling attack (indeed some wider question marks about their ship having sailed, here for example), led as it is by the ageing Steve Kirby and Alfonso Thomas. That said, they had little trouble bowling Durham out for 116 last week, albeit in a defeat.

It will be interesting to see what sort of pitch has been prepared. All the indications last season were that a dry pitch will be prepared but unless we select two spinners that could be a risky strategy - Somerset's George Dockrell is a talented twirler.

All the previews, all the quotes and all the press releases are out of the way. All that's left now is to get the 2013 season started. A new look squad under a brand new captain will want to get off to the best possible start.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

What did Surrey's pre-season tell us?

Surrey's not-so-busy pre-season schedule has drawn to a close, captain Graeme Smith arrived at the club this week and the press day is done and dusted...all that remains is to start the season in anger.

What did we learn from the three pre-season games the squad played then? Well in short, if I was uncertain of the direction in which Adams would go once Somerset arrive next Wednesday, I'm almost none the wiser now. Two players who are virtually certain of their places in the side, Burns and Davies, scored good runs in the three games. Burns scored 79 against Kent, 39* against Hampshire and 47 against the Gloucestershire Second XI. Davies meanwhile scored a rapid century against Kent but could only muster 26 in the Second XI game. With Smith certain to slot in (in the absence of any update about his ankle I'm assuming he's fit) that means half of the top six is penned in.

The only other contenders for top six positions who scored a convincing haul of runs were Jason Roy (172 runs at 57) and Gary Wilson (155 runs without being dismissed). Frustratingly they are two players in real danger of missing out on selection for next week. Arun Harinath hit 79 against Kent but then followed that with two single figure scores before hitting 25 in the second innings against Gloucestershire. Regardless of that slightly indifferent start he will surely start in the number three slot. Which gives us four places nailed down.

Vikram Solanki had a curious pre-season. He only scored 97 runs at 24 in between stints in the ITV4 studios, but across two innings in the Second XI game he scored 75 off 86 balls, perhaps suggesting he's getting into his stride. Given their far superior returns, one or both of Roy and Wilson is going to feel pretty hard done by if they're ignored, but I can't see Solanki missing out on the XI.

Of course there was no de Bruyn, who only arrived as the Gloucestershire game was beginning, which leaves four players vying for two top six slots (unless of course we play seven batsmen - I discussed that dilemma here). Caution would dictate that de Bruyn and Solanki are selected, but form suggests Roy and Wilson should be preferred. Which way Smith and Adams will go...nobody knows.

What of the bowlers? The biggest concern is the fitness of Gareth Batty, who missed the game against Gloucestershire with a side strain. Without a full scorecard from the Hampshire game its hard to say how many overs he's bowled, but against Kent he only bowled 15 - far fewer than is ideal going into the start of the Championship. Gary Keedy meanwhile unsurprisingly bowled the most overs in pre-season - 47 in total and took six wickets in the process, including four on a day two pitch against Gloucestershire. He only managed a single wicket during the opposition's successful chase of 225 runs on day three however. Perhaps the Oval isn't the raging turner we might have expected.

Of the quick bowlers, Tim Linley bowled the most overs (42) and took the most wickets (5). That however is almost certainly still not enough to guarantee him a place in the starting lineup though. Oddly enough an injury to Gareth Batty might increase Linley's chances of playing. If Batty doesn't play we will probably play a batsman at number seven which will reduce the need for Jon Lewis' batting in the lower order. Lewis bowled 29 overs against Kent and Gloucestershire but took just a single wicket, I think Linley's greater threat with the ball should see him ahead in the pecking order.

Stuart Meaker bowled 30 overs and took four wickets. For evidence of his searing pace check out this video, detonating some poor unsuspecting batsman's stumps around 35 seconds in. He's a guaranteed starter fitness permitting. Chris Tremlett meanwhile bowled 25 overs in the Second XI game suggesting he's heading towards match fitness, you'd still question whether it was safe to play him in a four man attack though. Jade Dernbach bowled plenty of overs and evidence suggests he was swinging the ball, but there's not room for Tremlett, Linley, Meaker, Lewis and Dernbach in the same attack. Adams and Smith have some tough calls to make. If pushed I'd probably say a five man attack consisting of Batty, Lewis, Keedy, Meaker and Tremlett is most likely, or if Batty isn't fit a four man attack of Keedy, Meaker, Linley and Dernbach.

We'll know more soon enough as Chris Adams' first squad of 2013 will be named on Tuesday. Our opponents, Somerset, lost a low-scoring encounter against Durham today but they will welcome back 2012's run machine Nick Compton into their top three. That adds to an already preposterously strong top order featuring Trescothick, Hildreth, Kieswetter and Buttler. It's a tough assignment as Graeme Smith's first match in charge. I for one can't wait.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Jordan and Lancefield - what might have been?

I'll say at the outset of this post that no conclusions can be drawn on the basis of one innings, for either a batsman or a bowler. But the cases of Chris Jordan and Tom Lancefield raise some interesting questions today owing to their impressive performances for their respective clubs.

Jordan returned figures of 6-48 on his Sussex debut and by all accounts bowled with no little skill (and pace). In five seasons with Surrey he had failed to register a single five wicket haul. He skips town to our South Coast rivals and lo and behold, he's bagged one in his first game. When he departed the club at the end of 2012 I came to the conclusion that a change of scenery might just do the trick for him. Based on today's efforts, it certainly has.

The talented allrounder never wanted for chances at Surrey. He played 40 first class matches for the club but in addition to no five-fors he also never scored a hundred, in fact only registering four fifties in his time. A talent unfulfilled or not much of a talent at all? The general consensus, not least from Mark Ramprakash who tweeted his thoughts here is the former, so what went wrong?

He certainly had his fair share of injury, missing the entirety of 2010 with a back injury and there were others besides which won't have helped his progression one iota. Perhaps he wasn't given the guidance and coaching he needed, or maybe he didn't work hard enough at his own game? You might get different versions of the same story from player and club. Rory Hamilton-Brown talked of Sussex being a more "caring" club - maybe that is how Jordan needs to feel about his surroundings as well. If he continues down the road he started on today with Sussex the talk of an England career will be revived before long. If his talent with bat and ball begins to be fulfilled it will begin to look like a very poor decision by Surrey to let him leave the club.

Tom Lancefield's is a different case entirely. Today he scored a match winning hundred for Gloucestershire's Second XI against Surrey. "So what?" I hear you cry. Well a Second XI fixture it might've been, but the bowling attack, featuring Tremlett, Meaker, Lewis, Linley and Keedy was very definitely that of the first team.

In three seasons at Surrey he only played seven first class fixtures, all of them during the 2010 season and all of them doing the tricky job of opening the innings. Nonetheless he still managed to average 32 with a couple of fifties from 11 innings. Not great, but not a disgrace when you look at the record of Surrey opening batsmen in recent years.

Quite what he did wrong, and on what basis he was adjudged to have failed at Surrey, is a mystery. Of course we are blessed with some extraordinary batting talent at the club this season but there isn't a huge amount of depth to the squad in that respect. Whatever the process was in coming to the decision to jettison the 22 year old Lancefield, he's gone and I hope he secures himself a full time deal elsewhere. Today's hundred will have been all the sweeter for being against his old club.

Whether both Lancefield and Jordan make their old club really live to regret letting them depart remains to be seen. Every club says goodbye to players who go on to make it big (or nearly big) somewhere else and as I said above any definitive judgement is hugely premature, but it will be fascinating to see how the pair develop during the 2013 season. And in the absence of a Surrey match this week it does at least give me something to worry about.

Monday, 8 April 2013

2013 Preview Part III - The Bowlers (and the others)

There was a time way back in 2008 when our battery of pace bowlers could only fairly be described as "flat". An attack led by Pedro Collins and Jimmy Ormond, neither in their prime, wasn't frightening anyone. Fast-forward five years and now its a challenge to find a better collection of bowlers in either division. With everyone fit and firing our bowlers will create chances on most surfaces.

Given that Surrey's ranks of allrounders have steadily been depleted in recent years, with the departure of first Chris Schofield and then Chris Jordan and Matt Spriegel, I've included the remainder in the preview below.

Stuart Meaker
Meaker has been a key part of our four day attack for a couple of years now. As with so many young express fast bowlers he’s had his share of injuries, missing 12 matches over the last two seasons (though some of those have been due to Lions duty) but when he has played he’s been crucial. He’s taken 116 wickets at 24 since the start of 2010, no one has taken more five wicket hauls for Surrey in that time. He can be devastating with the red ball, never more so than during the Somerset game at the Oval last year when he took 8-52, including the prize wickets of Hildreth and Kieswetter. He's been away with various England squads this winter but the returns haven't been stellar, just 11 wickets in 10 matches (though much of his cricket has been in tough subcontinental conditions). He'll be much more of a handful once the county season gets back underway.

Jade Dernbach
2012 wasn't Dernbach's finest. He was identified by the club as one of a "small minority group" who last year became "entrapped" in the pitfalls of London life. Dernbach is a player who divides opinion, on and off the pitch, but I for one think he deserves another (final) chance with Surrey. He's played his heart out for the club, occasionally through injury and never without plenty of guts, from a very early age and above all he's an unusually talented bowler. In the longer format he's under rated and can bowl economical spells, although he's not always as probing as you'd like. In limited overs matches he is a match winner. He had a torrid international winter, taking just five wickets in four ODIs in India, ending the series with an average of 49 and an economy rate of 7.34, comfortably the worst on either side. He is also now notoriously the most expensive bowler in the history of ODIs. He made more of an impact in the T20s in New Zealand however, taking six wickets in three matches. A desire to play Tremlett back into fitness, Meaker's superior pace and Lewis's batting may ultimately squeeze Dernbach out of the Surrey Championship side initially.

Jon Lewis
Have I mentioned that Lewis had a tricky second half of 2012? Sometimes it feels like I never write anything else about the bloke. He took only eight wickets in the final eight games of last season, but it shouldn’t be forgotten how much of a handful he was in his first five games, grabbing 23 wickets at less than 20 apiece. He adds a fair amount of steel to the lower order and if we elect to field five bowlers Lewis may find himself a place in the XI. Needs to sort out the no-ball issue, while the wickets dried up the free runs didn’t – he gave away precisely 100 runs simply by over-stepping in 2012. He reiterated his batting ability with a better than a run-a-ball fifty against Gloucestershire Second XI today.

Chris Tremlett
Just the one lacklustre appearance in 2012 for the injury plagued seamer did not bode well for the remainder of his career but the winter has given him a chance to regroup and recover. England still have designs on him for the Ashes as Steve Finn has yet to definitively nail down a place in the starting XI but he’ll have to prove his fitness first. There is no doubt that on form and fully fit, Tremlett is one of the best bowlers in the country. As part of a five man attack he can be devastating, but if we only field four bowlers his workload might be deemed too high. Strangely he didn’t play in the pre-season fixture against Kent and I’m not sure he bowled a heap of overs against Hampshire (though he did collect the wicket of Jimmy Adams). He’ll need to bowl plenty of overs for the Second XI this week if he is to have a hope of making the first fixture; playing later in the month or into May could be more realistic.

Tim Linley
Seven matches, and only three in the first 11 fixtures, seems like scant reward for the man who took 73 wickets in 2011. It seems like scant reward because it is. And when Linley did get on the park last season he didn’t disgrace himself with 16 wickets at 29 each, including a five-for against a powerful Nottinghamshire attack. He will probably have to be satisfied with another bit-part in 2013 as the more fashionable Meaker, Dernbach and Tremlett and the more expert batsman, Lewis, sneak ahead of him in the pecking order. He was the most economical seamer in the attack in the game against Kent last week, picking up two wickets in the process, which will give Adams food for thought.

George Edwards
Edwards was the Matt Dunn of 2012. He played just the two games, against Worcestershire and Somerset, but took five wickets including an explosive 4-44 against the former. He was expensive, leaking 4.1 runs per over but he is a genuine quick, and tall to boot. He is yet to pass his 21st birthday so occasional rather than relentless first team cricket is no bad thing.

Matt Dunn
Having burst into the first XI in 2011 as Jade Dernbach’s replacement against Derbyshire (he took 5-56 in a victory), Dunn was infuriatingly under-bowled in the subsequent fixture against Gloucestershire and he’s only featured for the first team once since. Injury got in the way in 2012, as did Edwards’ explosive debut, but if he can get himself fit this year, a backup seam attack of Edwards, Linley and Dunn himself is very handy indeed.

Gary Keedy
Much like fellow winter recruit Vikram Solanki, 2012 was hardly vintage Keedy but also like Solanki, there’s probably some life in the old dog yet. In his defence his chances were only limited in Championship cricket last season because of Lancashire’s admirable policy of blooding their younger spinners, rather than Keedy being poor. He is one of County Cricket’s quiet achievers, our attack has been crying out for a Keedy or a Dean Cosker for many a year so we should count our blessings. Quite how he fits into the side is another matter, but don’t be surprised to see Adams plump for two spinners at the Oval regularly. Keedy wasn’t signed to sit on the sidelines and when his capture was announced last year Adams said “very few counties are as committed to a two spinner policy as Surrey”.

Freddie van den Bergh
The Surrey man of whom we have seen the least in recent years, mainly because he is still at University and has only appeared for Surrey against the MCCU sides. However he comes highly regarded and with Batty and Keedy on the books at Surrey as well, he has two very able masters to learn from. If he plays any role in the first team at all it is only likely to be on wearing pitches at the very end of the season. One for the future certainly.

The allrounders

Gareth Batty
Surrey’s hero of 2012, Batty’s reputation was so enhanced that by the end of the season Surrey were referred to in some quarters simply as “Team GB”. His bowling figures were helped by some very spin friendly Oval pitches, but it’s worth noting that his wickets came cheaper than his spinning colleague Murali Kartik’s on those pitches. The ball might be turning but wickets don’t just take themselves. His batting was poor though, including 13 single figure scores and no score higher than 36. His batting is not that of a reliable number seven. He can expect some more dry Oval wickets this year and his grit and determination ought to fit in nicely with Messrs Smith and Ponting.

Tom Jewell
21 year old allrounder Jewell has been knocking around the Surrey squad for a good few years. It may have surprised some when his contract was extended at the end of 2012, perhaps largely thanks to his score of 70 in the game against Lancashire, but Jewell has earned his chance. He’s only played three Championship matches for Surrey, but he’s never been involved in a defeat. His bowling is unlikely to terrify many Division One top order batsmen but as a fifth bowler it would be more than adequate. It would be a crime to see Jewell stew in the Second XI while some of his colleagues in the autumn of their careers are persisted with.

Zafar Ansari
It feels like an age since Ansari made his full Surrey debut in late 2010, so much so that he already feels like a fixture despite having never yet actually played a full season for the club. He is no less exciting a player for the passage of time and I still can’t wait for him to be a permanent member of the squad. His thirteen innings opening the batting last season brought only one score of 50 or more (that 257 ball epic at Edgbaston), and an average below 20. Hopefully 2013 will see him allowed to develop in the middle order, though he certainly has the talent and attitude to return to the top of the order at some point in his career. He is something of a Jekyll and Hyde as a batsman, his obduracy in Championship cricket makes way for a prodigious six hitting ability in limited overs cricket. His tricky left arm spin also tends to be more effective in the shorter formats.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

2013 Preview Part II - the batsmen

In last season's preview I was adamant that the batting was our weakest department. Since then we've lost Hamilton-Brown, Ramprakash, Spriegel, Lancefield and of course Tom Maynard. We are certainly not blessed with large numbers of batsmen, but the ones we have are a pretty handy bunch. It still doesn't quite replicate the strength we have in the seam bowling department for example, but there are plenty of positives to draw on.

Being light on numbers, there is a concern over a lack of competition for the batting slots. If some of the players who struggled for form in 2012 continue to do so, Adams may find himself short of alternatives. Here's a player-by-player account of the options at his disposal:

Graeme Smith:
What to say about the man who in the last nine months has hit the following milestones: 100 tests (against England at the Oval), 100 tests as captain (against Pakistan at the Wanderers) and most test wins as captain (winning his 49th test vs. Pakistan, overhauling Ponting's record). It seems scarcely believable that such a colossus of the international game will be turning out for Surrey this month (assuming his dodgy ankle isn’t too dodgy of course). Any extended period he can spend in and around the club will be of immense value. Not just in passing on his skills as a batsman but also in impressing his attitude on a group of players, many of whom are still finding their way in cricket. His work ethic, combined with that of the other "big beasts" of the batting order, Zander de Bruyn and Vikram Solanki, could see the side transformed. After the disappointment of Jacques Rudolph last year, this South African opener won't let us down.

Rory Burns:
One of very few genuine bright spots in 2012, Rory Burns' emergence as a genuine talent and a genuine opener was a massive bonus. The last three seasons have seen 17 players tried in the openers' slots but we go in to 2013 reasonably certain of the opening partnership. Young players are always susceptible to the mysterious "second season syndrome" that can make the first one seem like a fluke, and undoubtedly Division One bowlers have had a good look at him now and life will be tougher for him. However such was Burns' composure in taking on the tricky opener's role, and in tricky circumstances I have high hopes that he'll continue where he left off. His pre-season form suggest’s he’ll be fine with scores of 39* and 79 against Hampshire and Kent.

Ricky Ponting:
More than a few eyebrows were raised as Surrey's spending splurge continued apace, following the signing of Graeme Smith with that of former Australia captain Ponting. He comes at a price sure, but his Sheffield Shield form this season shows that the price is warranted. Although he's 38 he still topped the Shield batting with 911 runs at 76, with three hundreds in nine matches as he collected his first winners medal. His grit and leadership skills will come in more than handy when Smith is unavailable, and the younger batsmen in the side will benefit from his vast experience.

Arun Harinath:
This is a big year for Harinath. He was given the final six fixtures of the 2012 season to perform and nail down a place in the side. He didn't do that beyond doubt, but he did a very solid job, averaging 37 in the number three slot with two hundreds. It was the first time in a while that he'd been given a lengthy run in the first XI and there was nothing to suggest he should be replaced in the side for 2013. He is a mentally very strong player, and while he doesn't have a huge array of shots (though he has expanded significantly in the last 18 months or so) he is very intelligent, and technically sound. He will have to make the most of his talents, but there are few who work harder at their game. To my mind it is important that Harinath is backed to continue in the number three slot ahead of Solanki.

Vikram Solanki:
37 years old and just a single hundred in 2012 does not make especially pretty reading for Surrey fans expecting Solanki to form a key part of an experienced middle order. However, his 2011 was markedly better and let's face it, how many batsmen had a great time of it last summer? Age is not necessarily a barrier to big runs, Mark Ramprakash was 36 when he scored 2,278 runs in 2006 and he scored a few more after that. Solanki isn't the batsman Ramps was but he's still a fine player capable of scoring plenty of runs. He's used to the number three slot but I'm hopeful that that will be the reserve of Harinath, and such an experienced player at number four is no bad thing. His pre-season form, just 22 runs in two games, could give Adams cause for concern, he may have to make an outing for the Second XI this week to find some form. If he does, and he and Steven Davies ever get into top gear in partnership make sure you’re there to watch it.

Zander de Bruyn:
Such a rock of the Surrey batting order in 2011, de Bruyn endured a torrid time of it in 2012 registering just a single hundred in the final fixture, adding something of a gloss to his numbers. His returns over the winter in South Africa have been worryingly similar, averaging an identical 26 from 17 innings with no hundreds, suggesting that last season's form may be the rule rather than the exception. Should his mediocre run continue he will surely be put out to pasture. Nonetheless a return to form would be most welcome, if nothing else his part time military medium can be useful in early season conditions, allowing three seamers to be played. His winter form with the ball - 21 wickets at 26 – was significantly better than his batting. He’s been missing throughout Surrey’s pre-season so far because of T20 duty in South Africa and since he hasn’t faced a delivery since the 9th of February, Adams will be taking something of a gamble if he’s selected for the first game.

Steven Davies:
Davies revealed earlier this year that he has been struggling with depression after the death of Tom Maynard and that may explain his poor form in the latter half of 2012. In truth it is some time since we saw the best of Steven Davies but it would be wrong to doubt that he's any less of the glorious strokemaker we saw in 2010 and 2011 - you know what they say about form and class. He's fallen way down the England pecking order with the emergence of Buttler and Bairstow, so we will get a full season out of him in 2012. If he finds himself again he can be a terrific asset in all forms of the game. A withering pre-season hundred against Kent this week provided a hint that he might be back on track.

Jason Roy:
Another who was hit hard by the events of last June, Roy frequently looked all at sea in 2012. He still shows those flashes of brilliance but I can't escape the feeling that his game hasn't moved on at the pace it seemed to be doing under the watchful eye of Graham Thorpe. He doesn’t suffer from a lack of talent, he can go as far as he wants in the game, but the club need to make sure he is allowed to develop into the batting powerhouse he surely can be. Like Davies, Roy too can dominate in all forms of the game. His style is of course more suited to the shorter formats but if he can tighten up his technique and play the occasional innings like the one we saw against Warwickshire last year (42 not out from 101 balls to help secure the draw), he will give our middle order real potency. A settled place in the batting lineup would help, since he came into the side in 2010 he’s batted in every position in the top seven aside from number four. He’ll be hoping that scores of 56 and 58* will persuade Adams to give him a run in the side from the get go.

Gary Wilson:
I've said before how I've come full circle on Wilson. Where I once thought he was a pointless selection, I now think he can be a valuable player in all formats, whether he takes the gloves or not. He is an intelligent batsman, he showed that on his way to 182 runs in just six T20 matches last year while much of the rest of the batting floundered. He will again disappear for Ireland for a couple of games in May, and one each in June and July. Wilson is without question right to choose his country over his county as they strive towards test status, but his ability to hold down a regular place in the side will be hampered by his absence.

Kevin Pietersen:
We probably won't see a great deal of Pietersen this year, certainly less than we saw of him in 2012 due to unforeseen circumstances. There is the tantalising prospect of him and Graeme Smith taking to the field together in the Championship game against Durham at the Oval in May, depending on Pietersen’s knee injury, and the even more tantalising prospect of he, Smith and Ponting all turning out against Middlesex in the T20 in July. If last year's outings are anything to go by, his limited appearances are unlikely to disappoint.

Dominic Sibley:
This prodigiously talented 17 year old opener might just sneak himself a bit of first team cricket towards the end of the season and I wouldn't bet against him making an impact. He was away with the England U19 side over the winter and despite being one of the younger members of the squad he made something of a name for himself. In six matches he scored three fifties and a hundred, the hundred being a bat-carrying effort in an innings in which the next highest score was 29. He can expect a lot of Second XI cricket which ought to toughen him up for a challenging first team debut.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

The 2013 season is almost upon us

Firstly I must apologise for my extended absence from the blogosphere save for marking the signings of Smith and Ponting. In truth, there hasn't been a whole lot of other news to report in that time, but nonetheless I have neglected the blog. As well as continuing to maintain this venerable old girl as much as ever during the season, I’ll also be contributing to Cricinfo’s network of county supporter-bloggers, my first effort can be found here.

In any case, here we are just a matter of days from the start of the County Championship season. What will 2013 bring and are there reasons to be cheerful for the Surrey faithful after a distinctly sombre 2012 season?

There will likely be something of a shift, some of the success of the last three seasons in one day cricket may be foregone, hopefully in exchange for some better returns in four day cricket. A new captain will bring new methods. Rory Hamilton-Brown wasn’t a bad captain, he was given a massive job at a very young age, but he wasn’t especially good either. For all the instinctive bowling changes that won us CB40 matches, there was too often a lack of flexibility and adventure in four day cricket. Not to mention the occasional game where he just went missing, literally in the case of the Horsham game last year where he spent long periods off the field after a night on the town.

Graeme Smith is the big (physically and otherwise) reason to be cheerful, or at least hopeful, for 2013. The man who this year became the most successful captain in the history of Test cricket in winning his 49th test as leader of the South African team, should be available for around 10 Championship matches, as long as his troublesome ankle doesn't flare up. And when he’s not around mid-season there’ll be the small matter of the next most successful captain in test history - Ricky Ponting - in his stead.

Compared with last year there is a more experienced look to a pared-down squad. Given the goings on last season, that is surely a good thing. Last year runs were hard to come by, but even seen through the prism of one of the soggiest summers on record, our batting was poor. The recruitment of Smith and Solanki ought to help that, but the likes of de Bruyn, Davies and Roy know they will also have to improve on last year’s efforts. The bowlers plugged away admirably given the circumstances. Meaker was exceptional, Batty too. Lewis might have tailed off disastrously but he never stopped running in.

So what is realistic for the Championship this season? Just as it was last year, any talk of challenging for the title would be overly hopeful. Having said that, given the level of investment in the playing staff (and the recruitment of a new bowling coach – still no full time batting coach though) senior management can be forgiven for expecting better this year. Much better. In four seasons Adams has won 16 Championship matches, or roughly a quarter of all matches played. His predecessor Alan Butcher won closer to a third of his matches in charge. It’s a simplistic comparison to make, but not entirely unfair. Adams has been given the chance to overhaul the squad...twice. The level of resource he’s had at his disposal is unprecedented in the County game. The time for excuses has long since passed. I hope to see Smith given the freedom he needs to make the squad his own.

A season bumping along the lower reaches of the table shouldn’t be tolerated, we have the players to compete with the best of the division on our day, though the overall squad short of the very best. The difference between a good Division One side (we’re a good side) and a very good one can’t be boiled down to one thing, but batting depth is an important factor. Our bowling attack is the equal, at least, of a side like Warwickshire, but our batting is nowhere near as resilient. At the end of last season they had Jeetan Patel, a man with a batting average of 20, at number 11. To have someone like Woakes, who would comfortably bat in our top five, at number seven is such a luxury, and a key reason as to why they’re so tough to beat.

Surrey have to be aiming for fourth or better. It’d be nice to beat Middlesex who were excellent last year and have added to their side well over the winter. Aiming for mid-table might not sound terribly ambitious but Division One is very tough, and 16 games is a long old season. It goes without saying that the more games Smith plays, the better. Not just for his batting talents at the top of the order, though that will be most welcome, but also for his attitude and discipline.

So what will the make-up of the side be this season? There are probably two key issues at play; spinners and Chris Tremlett. When Gary Keedy was signed Chris Adams said that, as with much of the latter part of last season, two spinners would be employed particularly in home games. This creates something of a conundrum, especially when you consider the Tremlett factor.

England seem very keen to get Tremlett fit for the summer, which means Surrey will probably look to play him where possible. And why not? He’s a magnificent bowler. However the need to manage his workload probably means playing five bowlers, three seamers and two spinners. Last season a combination of Chris Jordan, Jewell, Spriegel, Ansari and de Bruyn provided fill-in overs. To begin with at least only Jewell and de Bruyn are available to do that job this time round. Having been omitted from the pre-season friendly squads, Jewell can (unfortunately) probably be discounted. Will captain and coach be happy enough to fall back on Zander de Bruyn’s medium pacers as a third seam bowling option? They may well do, but if not Gareth Batty has to bat in the top seven, which on the evidence of last season may be a bit ambitious. As for the remaining bowlers, Meaker and Lewis (because of his batting) are probably at the head of the queue, Dernbach and Linley in close pursuit.

The top order is pretty certain. Smith and Burns will open the batting, Arun Harinath must be given a chance to make the number three slot his own and Vikram Solanki will therefore have to make do with batting at number four. Five and six will likely be taken by de Bruyn and Steven Davies, and whether or not number seven is a batsman or Gareth Batty depends on the issues above. If it is to be a batsman then Jason Roy and Gary Wilson will have to duke it out, though personally I’d back one of those two younger men ahead of the admirable but ageing Solanki.

As I said above results in the limited overs games, and particularly the CB40 may be hard to come by. The power of Hamilton-Brown and Maynard is now gone, along with the very useful bowling of Matthew Spriegel and of course the exceptional fielding of all three. Players like Keedy and Solanki are unlikely to be able to maintain that standard in the field. The recipe for success in previous years, based largely around strangling the opposition with over after over of spin will have to be scaled back somewhat and another method will need to be found. Surrey in the Adams era have never quite managed to get to grips with Twenty20 and it’s hard to see that changing this season either. An appearance at finals day feels more unlikely than in previous seasons.

On balance I think most members would trade some of the consistent CB40 success of the last couple of years for a few more Championship wins. I know I would. That has to be the focus of this season and the winter recruitment is reassuringly red-ball focussed. After last year's stuttering and frustrating early run of fixtures, getting up and running quickly is very important.

Over the coming days I'll be doing an in depth preview of the options on the playing staff, starting tomorrow with the batsmen.