Surrey’s season has been dire: they went without a win in their seven County Championship games, missed out on qualification in the Friends Provident Trophy and, after losing their last three games, even failed to progress in the Twenty20 Cup for the first time. Yet, after a much-needed first Championship win, over Durham, there is now renewed optimism the club can salvage something from a miserable campaign and stay up in Division One.
Mind the Gap
After cruising to promotion last season, Surrey were soon reminded of the increasing gulf in class between the two divisions; like fellow promoted side Worcestershire, they quickly slipped into the relegation zone. Their problems were manifold. Many pundits had predicted Surrey would score many runs; but they were terribly prone to collapse, overly dependent on their top four and especially the ever-fantastic Mark Ramprakash. The middle-order trio of James Benning, Ali Brown and Rikki Clarke barely contributed a run. Meanwhile, their seam bowling continued – as it has for many years – to lack any penetration; and, unlike last season, their spinners, though good in one-day cricket, were unable to make any impact in the four-day game, with Ian Salisbury looking like a man edging towards retirement. In truth, they looked a side simply not good enough to survive in Division One.
They have only won one game, of course, but it was a most encouraging win against a Durham side including an on-song Steve Harmison. Stewart Walters played a tremendous innings of 70 in the first innings, illustrating the confidence and ability to take on top bowlers – including Harmison – but also good technique and shot selection. It was his first Championship game of the season, in place of the sadly declining Brown, and he is now deserving of an extended run in the side. As Surrey pursued their target of 153 against a fierce onslaught from Harmison, Clarke, averaging 12 before this game, played a decisive counter-attacking knock of 68*, the sort that can kick-start seasons.
Matt Nicholson, a highly competent if uninspiring choice as overseas player, was terrific; bowling just back-of-a-length, he was both consistent and incisive, claiming match figures of 7-81. Harbhajan Singh, wisely signed to replace the ineffectual Azhar Mahmood, bowled reasonably – and, as he gets more overs under his belt, he will be expected to win Surrey games on the flat Oval track. However, he was eclipsed by Chris Schofield, who bowled with flight, accuracy and variations – his quicker ball claimed the wicket of Paul Wiseman.
Schofield, though he has done little in the Championship, has been a rare bright spot for Surrey this season, netting 13 wickets at 19 in the Friends Provident Trophy, as well as scoring an excellent 75* against Hampshire, and taking 17 wickets at 9 in the Twenty20 Cup, with an economy rate of just 6. He has bowled with such guile and cool under presure that he was selected in England's initial 30-man squad for the Twenty20 World Cup; and Schofield’s performance against Durham suggests he can transform this form into the Championship, where his spin partnership with Harbhajan could well be crucial.
Problems still remain, most notably in the seam department; save for Nicholson, who will get the wickets? Jade Dernbach offers almost nothing to the side – they would be better off selecting another batsman; the erratic Neil Saker took five wickets at Old Trafford and is probably worth persevering with; Clarke has pace but still bowls far too short; and James Ormond seems permanently injured. One option could be to recall the languid Mohammad Akram – he was very impressive in the FP Trophy and the veteran should, at least, bring a little more control.
After their win over Durham, Surrey now lie just ten points inside the relegation zone. Clearly, they need to find real consistency, but there are promising signs they have turned the corner – and, in Walters, they may just have found the batsman to boost their middle order. But, regardless of how well they bat – and whether Ramprakash can continue his awe-inspiring form of the past 18 months – the key to survival patently lies in whether they can bowl the opposition out twice. To do this, they will need Nicholson to produce more performances like that against Durham, and for the other seamers to improve. But, as the end of the season nears, the onus will be on their spinners – Schofield, perhaps Doshi or Salisbury and, above all, Harbhajan.