That Surrey’s promotion campaign in 2014 fell away with only one game to go – losing a highly entertaining Worcestershire encounter due to Jack Shantry’s heroics – speaks volumes for the swift progress made following a lengthy period in the mire.
If not for a sluggish start, which took until Graeme Smith’s final match, five fixtures in, for Surrey to win their first Championship contest, they might have made an immediate return to Division One.
The victory ignited a run of eight unbeaten matches – although winning just three of them – and saw Surrey temporarily move into a top two spot. While frustrated at eventually slipping to fifth and another season in Division Two, recovery doesn’t seem such a distant prospect.
Importantly, concerns that their promising troupe of youngsters might be too inexperienced were dispelled. Jason Roy blasted his way to over 1,000 Championship runs, closely followed by Rory Burns and Zafar Ansari in the 900s. Matt Dunn finished leading wicket-taker in his first full season with 47 first-class scalps, and encouraging displays by Tom Curran (19 wickets at 27.68) and Ansari (25 wickets) would suggest Surrey’s bowling, who are capable of more than displayed last season, looks strong going into 2015. A rejuvenated Stuart Meaker and Jade Dernbach alongside experienced seamers David Balcombe, Tim Linley and Chris Tremlett is a formidable Division Two force.
As always with a club in flux, the season wasn’t without its stresses. The early departure and eventual retirement of Smith two years in to his three-year contract meant further upheaval. Gary Wilson was named captain in the South African’s absence and performed admirably, shepherding his side to a second successive T20 Finals Day and within touching distance of promotion.
Failure in the One-Day Cup, where a lackluster showing kept them bottom of Group B, did blight a season which may still be looked back upon as the changing of fortunes for Surrey.
Ins: David Balcombe (Hampshire), James Burke (Somerset), Ben Foakes (Essex), Kevin Pietersen, Kumar Sangakkara, Moises Henriques
Outs: Tom Jewell, Jack Winslade (both released), George Edwards (Lancashire), Kevin O’Brien (Leicestershire)
With more ‘coming of age’ players in Surrey’s ranks this season than Ian Bell has experienced in his lifetime, it is difficult to identify an individual who will charter Surrey’s course to promotion. Their greatest strength is the depth of talent they can call upon. And bringing the side together will be the job of new captain Gareth Batty.
Brought in as skipper to replace Wilson, who will miss chunks of the season on international duty, Batty returns to leadership for the fourth season in five. A competitive individual, the 37-year-old has another difficult remit – this time building on 2014’s groundwork and restoring the club’s place in Division One.
Attention is further placed by the presence of Kevin Pietersen. The media spotlight will be shining brightly on the Kia Oval during the summer and the experienced hand of Batty will be crucial in leading Surrey forward.
On an individual basis, Batty demonstrated in 2014 he is still a force on the county circuit. A career best 8 for 68 against Essex even sprung talk of an England appearance. But it is how he handles the captaincy and the players that could define Surrey’s season.
Player to Watch
Kevin Pietersen, because who won’t be. How will he do? No one really knows. More than a year out of first-class cricket and a single County Championship appearance in the last two years, with only a smattering of T20 fun around the globe, leaves us hard-pressed to guess what he can produce for Surrey.
Possessed by the possibility of playing Test cricket again, we could be in for fireworks as an Ashes summer inspires him to replicate his previous run-plundering form. It might also work out quite the opposite if he struggles with the bat or international opportunities are not forthcoming. Due to playing all formats, he should at least be more prolific in the T20 Blast, whose season long fixture list he cited as problematic in the past when finding and maintaining form.
Either way, the return of a showman and cricket star like KP is likely to put bums on the edge of seats. At a time when participation rates are falling and interest in the game with under-25s is dwindling, the return of an entertainer and crowd drawer should be looked upon as advantageous for the game. How fortunate we will be if he finds form too.
The long line of thoroughbred international batsmen to pass through the corridors of the Kia Oval for Surrey gained another name when it was announced Kumar Sangakkara had signed for 2015. The Sri Lankan retired from one-day international cricket following the World Cup and is expected to be available for most of the summer.
Well-known to Surrey coach Graham Ford from his time with the national side, Sangakkara provides the top order experience the club needs to match their gifted youngsters.
A previous stint with Warwickshire and a short spell at Durham last year prior to the Test series sees him averaging 53.63 in the County Championship. A fixture quirk means he has never played more than short-format cricket at the Oval, but there are few suggesting that the Test Number One might have trouble piling on the runs before international duty calls.
Cover while Sangakkara is away will be supplied by Australian Moises Henriques, who is also doubling up as Surrey’s T20 overseas player. New South Wales and Sydney Sixers captain in the Big Bash League, Henriques will join once his shift in the IPL is completed. An experienced batsman, the 28-year-old will be hoping to go further in the English T20 than the BBL, having lost the final earlier this year partly due to his end of innings misthrow.
How they’ll fare
Hopes of promotion to Division One could not be greater. An impressive Championship showing in the middle half of last season combined with the A-list additions have raised expectations beyond those of 2014, when an instant return was not discussed with quite so much fever.
Pietersen’s participation has added further to the prediction that Surrey will secure promotion, and with their enviable lineup it is no surprise that they are favourites for first place. If his dreams to represent England are to come true, Surrey could be the main benefactor of his rise, and early season runs might prove vital in their race for Division One status.
Striking a balance in the team between young and old is the greatest challenge facing the club, but in Batty they have a wise head who should be capable of managing an array of personalities. One new character to have not garnered quite so much attention is Balcombe. The fast bowler is a shrewd addition to their seam attack, who have a variety of options to turn to.
Short-format success should also be a realistic target for Surrey, and suitable reward of the thousands who attend home matches. They have the talent for a third successive T20 Finals Day, and in turn the title.
v Glamorgan, Sunday 19th April at Cardiff
LV County Championship Division Two: 3/1
Royal London One-Day Cup: 8/1
Natwest Twenty20 Blast: 7/1