BY MARCUS HOOK
Surrey’s production line is the envy of all the other 17 counties and its strength was there for all to see out in Dubai recently, where 18-year-old Jamie Smith hit 127 on his first-class debut in the curtain-raiser to the domestic cricket season, the County Champion Match.
Smith became the youngest Englishman to make a first-class hundred on his county debut in eight years, and the first to achieve it in a Surrey shirt since Rikki Clarke in 2002.
Of the Oval outfit’s 26-man squad, 17 cut their teeth in the Surrey academy and all seven of the first-teamers who are yet to reach their 22nd birthday have either hit a hundred or bagged a five-wicket haul.
The instant success of Surrey’s youngsters comes as no surprise to head coach Michael Di Venuto, who puts it down to the environment at the Kia Oval.
“We’ve got some excellent senior players and some excellent role models,” said the 45-year-old Tasmanian, who was part of the Durham side that won back-to-back County Championship titles in 2008 and 2009.
“My thing is every time you turn up and walk through those gates you’re here to improve and you’re here to get better. Those senior players are no different. They lead by example and they train as hard as anyone.
“The youngsters come into that environment knowing what’s expected of them, so, when they get their opportunities, they’re ready to play.
“If you’re a young boy, to walk out there with the number of players who have played international cricket – even though there’s quite a few on the fringe, but have had a taste – you’re hungry to get better, hungry to perform for Surrey and hungry to win games of cricket.
“The youngsters come in full of confidence. At the moment, they’re just showing what they can do. There haven’t been too many ups and downs, but they’ll certainly come as they play more and more cricket – it’s just the nature of the game.
“At the moment they’re going from strength to strength and as we saw the other day in Dubai with Jamie Smith, just coming out and playing an unbelievable innings.
“For an 18-year-old to go and play like that was pretty exceptional. Jamie’s another one who has improved so much in the last 12 months. Since playing him in a couple of T20s last year his improvement has been rapid.
“We’re in a pretty healthy place at the moment. There’s lots of competition for places here, there’s no doubt about that, but we don’t know what’s going to happen with England call-ups and injuries.
“Last year, we played 21 players in the County Championship. There will be England Lions games through the middle of the season as well. We get hit hard by all that, but I just see it as another opportunity for the next kid to come through and show what they can do.”
Looking ahead to the opening game of Surrey’s championship defence against Essex, which gets underway on Thursday, Di Venuto said: “Essex are a terrific team, no doubt about that.
“They suffered last year from being the hunted [having lifted the trophy in 2017] and it was only after we clinched the title they played their best cricket.
“They’ve got all bases covered and with Sir Alastair [Cook] back playing for them again this year, which is where they probably fell short last year – in the runs department, he’s certainly a big addition for them. I expect them to be right in the mix.”