Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Ramps and Harbhajan secure safety

2007 Season Review: Surrey
Final placings:
Championship Division One - 4th;
FP Trophy - 5th, Southern Conference;
Twenty20Cup - 3rd, South Division;
Pro40 Division Two - 4th

Halfway through the season, Surrey were undeniably in crisis. They had lost four, and won none, of their first seven Championship games, while subsiding after promising starts in the Friends Provident Trophy and Twenty20Cup. Yet their resurgence in the second half of the season was so impressive they ultimately finished fourth in Division One of the Championship – a truly stunning transformation. Win or lose, however, the peerless batting of Mark Ramprakash was a constant.

As the Championship season restarted after the Twenty20 break, Surrey were clear of bottom spot only by virtue of an astonishing display of resilience from skipper Mark Butcher and Matt Nicholson at the pre-flood-stricken New Road; they batted 21.3 overs together to salvage a draw. Yet, though that partnership was vital, there should be no doubting the most important moment in Surrey’s escape from relegation.

With Surrey totally lacking penetration before the Championship break – failing to take 20 wickets in a game up until that point – the Butchers took a brave decision by effectively sacking Azhar Mahmood, the erratic all-rounder, and replacing him with Harbhajan Singh. Singh, with much to prove after being dropped by India, was the catalyst for their spectacular mid-season change of fortunes, claiming 37 wickets in just six games, the highlight being match figures of 11-91 in the crucial two-day win at Kent. If he signs for next season, Surrey will believe they have the resources to reach the top three.

The other overseas bowler, Australian Matt Nicholson, was nothing if not wholehearted. He bowled valiantly in the Championship, claming 44 wickets at 29, bowling back-of-a-length and with great consistency. However, his impact extended far beyond his bowling; Nicholson’s batting application was excellent, encapsulated best in that partnership with Butcher, while he was also an invaluable member of the dressing-room. Chris Jordan, no doubt, would have learned much from him. The 18-year-old emerged almost from nowhere; but, with the excellent speeds he can generate, his relish for competition and more-than-promising batting, he already appears an England prospect. Of the other young quicks, Jade Dernbach recovered strongly late on to claim his maiden professional five-wicket haul.

The batting star, yet again, was Ramprakash – if there is a more technically proficient and aesthetically pleasing batsman around, he must be some player. He was outstanding throughout, averaging over 100 for the second consecutive year – something that will take many years to appreciate – including four centuries in Surrey's last three Championship games. Yet the supporting cast were undeniably disappointing.

Scott Newman’s Championship form floundered after an opening-game hundred, although he finally got fully to grips with the one-day game; his 92* to take Surrey to 160 at Kent was exceptional. Jon Batty, meanwhile, was terrific once more. Combining the twin roles of wicket-keeper and opener, he averaged 44. The captain was solid without approaching his free-flowing best; and, along with dad, did a pretty good job managing the side.

Ali Brown endured a woeful first-class season and, save for 176 in the FP Trophy was little better in limited-overs so, sadly, may now be on his way. Meanwhile, the trio of Stuart Walters, James Benning and Rikki Clarke (see below) struggled. Statistics do not come much more revealing than this: in 15 games, a Surrey batsman outside the top four only once passed 70, so it was important they moved quickly to sign Usman Afzaal.

In the limited-overs games, Surrey showed some signs of improvement, but their penchant for being edged out in crunch clashes meant they did not progress in any of the competitions. The highlight was the world-record 496/4 racked up against Gloucestershire in April, though Chris Schofield’s stunning Twenty20 form, including 4/12 at Hove, was a joy to behold. With Nayan Doshi buying out his contract and Ian Salisbury edging painfully into retirement, he must now improve his four-day form.

After their tremendous late-season surge to safety it would be worth sounding a note of caution. Surrey were indebted enormously to two players, Ramprakash and Singh. Batty, Butcher and Nicholson played their parts too. But overall contributions were worryingly lop-sided in favour of the experienced men, something that must be addressed next season.

Player of the season: Mark Ramprakash
Quite simply masterful. In 100 first-class games for Surrey he now averages a scarcely believable 77, with 44 hundreds, including supreme unbeaten tons off Warne and Mushtaq Ahmed amongst his 10 this season. There was also a pair of brilliantly-paced one-day centuries, and an 85* against Middlesex in a memorable Twenty20 win which illustrated his new-found freedom. To quote CMJ, never one for hyperbole, "It no longer makes any sense to leave the peerless Ramprakash out of the Test team." Would Australia obsess over his age (an irrelevance to winning cricket matches)? Or would they pick the best possible side to win in Sri Lanka?

Most disappointing player: Rikki Clarke
His superb, counter-attacking 68* against Durham helped to kick-start Surrey's season, but that should not disguise a miserable campaign for a man whose attitude falls miles short of Ramprakash's. His talent is undeniable, but first-class averages of 23 and 42 (the wrong way round) may be his last contributions for Surrey. He is not 'young' but on the verge of his 26th birthday, an age when he should be relishing responsibility.

Matt Nicholson's controversial dismissal of Nic Pothas, ending his 280-minute rearguard when it appeared Hampshire might salvage a draw. Chris Schofield promptly took the final wicket, giving him match figures of 8/139 and putting Surrey on the verge of safety.

Subsiding to an innings and 79 run defeat to relegation rivals Kent while taking just five wickets. With four defeats from six games, they appeared unable to adjust to the higher standards in Division One.

Can Surrey now challenge for the Championship? Share your views by leaving a comment below.

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Richard Lake said...

If it hadn't been for Ramps, Surrey would have been relegated by the end of August. Harbhajan then played his part in them winning games, but Surrey have, as you point out, been very much a one man team this year.

With Somerset and Notts coming in for Worcester and Warwicks, Division 1 will be much stronger next season and unless they get over their reliance on Ramps, Surrey are going to struggle even more next yerar.

Fourth place flattered Surrey and unless some of the younger players can begin to take some responsibility, then more tough times lie ahead.

Tim said...

Absolutely Richard. It was ultimately a good season but only Jordan and Newman of the 20-somehtings (apart from Harbhajan, obviously) really contributed.