It’s easy for success to turn sour, as Mark Stoneman knows all too well. His first 12 months at Surrey led to a mountain of runs, a Test debut and a trip to Australia for the biggest series of them all.
Fast forward another 12 months and the story is very different. A poor start to 2018 and two single figure scores against Pakistan saw him dropped by England, just another of Alastair Cook’s opening partners to come and go.
But things are looking back up, with Stoneman hitting runs towards the end of last season — three half-centuries and his only three-figure score came in the final five first-class matches – and expectation has risen again.
“I think for whatever experience you have before, nothing can prepare you for Test cricket,” he reflects. “I think it is the ultimate challenge.”
“Unfortunately I felt like I was starting to get my head around that aspect of it while my performances slipped on the levels that were required but hopefully putting everything into one package this summer, then I can get back in.”
Circumstances have certainly been kind to his hopes this winter. Cook’s retirement opened up a second spot at the top of the order while Keaton Jennings’ struggles have left him unlikely to wear the Three Lions shirt again.
At the other end, Surrey opener Rory Burns impressed in Sri Lanka and West Indies, albeit without a significant score. Given that he opens with Burns in county cricket, it would be a far simpler transition for them to do it for country too and, if push came to shove, national selector Ed Smith might be swayed by that fact.
Stoneman approves of the idea. “We’ve got a nice chemistry here, [we’ve] developed a good relationship over the last couple of years on and off the field and we get each other. We seem to bounce well off each other out in the middle and it would be great if we could be doing things right for Surrey and then out there for England as well.”
They have certainly been doing things right for Surrey. Last season saw the club lift the Specsavers County Championship, their first time winning the title since 2002, with Burns’ 1359 runs setting the standard.
Stoneman’s upturn in form towards the end of last season is a positive sign for all involved. He scored his first competitive century in just under a year in August and followed that up with fifties against Worcestershire, Somerset and Essex.
Pre-season has been productive too, with a white-ball century against Lancashire in Dubai last month. A winter off to clear his head has clearly helped, particularly when accompanied by the birth of his first son, Leo, in the autumn.
“My first son just arrived as well, so that was quite a tough period because he’s been a bit ill. He was born with a heart defect so that was quite a leveller. In the main it’s put everything into context really and I look forward to getting back out there and really enjoy playing and knowing that I have the goals and ambitions still burning as brightly as ever.”
“[I haven’t made any] massive technical changes. More a case of getting back to understanding my basics and that works really well. You go through county cricket and perform well and then you get selected and sometimes you can start pulling bits apart which have worked well for you before. Test cricket is a massive step up and much of that is mental as well as technical.”
The county structure this season allows Stoneman, Burns and Surrey’s other Test hopefuls to play ten Championship matches. For context, they mathematically secured the title last season in their 12th game.
From a club perspective, it provides a supreme chance to retain the title. For Stoneman and co. playing so much red-ball cricket in June and July provides the best possible opportunity to push for international selection.
“It’s always been a case of everyone tries to get out the blocks as best and early as they can,” Stoneman says. “Get your name at the top of the list early on whereas this year with everything pushed to the back end of the summer it’s a chance just to get everything right.
“The level of competition within the squad is very healthy and the attitudes within that form success and what it means to work with each other to be successful and not just selfish and ‘as long as I’m alright then things don’t matter.’ We’re very much a real strong group and come September we hope to be in the right position again.”