BY MARCUS HOOK
Not even the most pessimistic Ovalite would have envisaged as limp a defence of the County Championship title as Surrey mustered this year, nor could they have set the bar as low as just eight wins in all competitions – putting the mighty Oval outfit on a par, almost, with the likes of the perennially impoverished Leicestershire.
There were some plusses to arise from the mediocre, but most of them were relevant to England’s fortunes and what, despite this summer’s disappointments, still promises to be a bright future for the South Londoners.
It all started so well. Will Jacks smashed a 25-ball ton, including six sixes in an over, against Lancashire in pre-season. Ollie Pope hit a career-best 251 against MCC, sharing in a 266-run stand with Jamie Smith, who marked his first-class debut with an eye-catching 127.
On the team’s return from Dubai, Scott Borthwick (151), Mark Stoneman (117) and Ryan Patel (103) all put Durham University to the sword.
In a season that, for Surrey, was to be dominated by injuries, Borthwick then spent the next six weeks recovering from the side strain he picked up going for one big shot too many against the students.
When he returned, the former Durham man was plagued by inconsistency, before hitting two championship hundreds during the campaign’s last knockings.
A veil was quickly drawn over a sorry Royal London One-Day Cup. Surrey finished bottom of the South Group – guilty of surrendering wickets, sloppy fielding and failing to finish off the opposition when the opportunity presented itself.
After being bowled out for 88 by Gloucestershire and 127 by Kent, concerns the South Londoners would struggle to put runs on the board when the County Championship campaign resumed were allayed when Rory Burns and overseas signing Dean Elgar both hit hundreds against Somerset.
Jacks made a maiden first-class ton against Kent. Surrey might have won at Beckenham had Sam Curran not been forced to leave the field with a pulled hamstring and had Kent’s Wiann Mulder not been caught off a Rikki Clarke no-ball on 27. Mulder survived to see out the final day, making 68 not out as the hosts clung on for a draw.
By the time Surrey travelled to Birmingham to take on Warwickshire, the Bears had worked out their best chance of staying in Division One was to prepare wickets for their New Zealand off-spinner Jeetan Patel. The Oval outfit fell into the trap of electing to bowl first, which meant having to find an answer to Patel on an increasingly treacherous pitch.
That said, given the hosts’ margin of victory was 130 runs, Surrey did themselves no favours by allowing Warwickshire to recover from 186-8 to post 293 on the opening day.
With the Oval one of the venues for the Cricket World Cup, Surrey played two championship matches at Guildford, where, in the previous 17 years, they had registered just one four-day victory.
Somerset confirmed that they were would-be title contenders, although Matt Dunn’s eight wickets in the match hinted that the
27-year-old might, at long last, enjoy an injury-free season. Alas, Dunn managed just one more appearance, in the next game, against Yorkshire, which Surrey probably would have won but for the weather.
Overcoming Warwickshire at the Oval made up for it, but the re-match with Yorkshire at Scarborough hinged, initially, on Stoneman being given out caught behind to a shocking decision, just after reaching what was to be his only hundred of the season. But the loss of eight wickets for 37 runs on the final afternoon ultimately sealed Surrey’s fate.
With Jason Roy and Liam Plunkett starring in the World Cup, and Tom Curran a non-playing member of England’s victorious squad, Surrey had little option but to continue picking who was available, rather than who was in form – which the top order, by this time, certainly wasn’t.
In spite of their injury list, the management’s reluctance to field off-spinner Amar Virdi – who had been ever present throughout the 2018 title-winning campaign – finally gave way after the Oval outfit lost at home to Kent by five wickets.
Virdi was left out on the grounds that he had not bought into Surrey’s fitness regime. The response of many of the faithful was that if the 20-year-old was as fit as everyone else, he’d probably be injured.
Amar’s response was to take 14 wickets for 139 in the 167-run victory against Notts at Trent Bridge, becoming the first bowler to bag 14 or more victims in a single game for Surrey since Martin Bicknell in 2000.
That result left Notts winless in the championship, and, therefore, as good as relegated – which was great news for Surrey, with just one team going down this year – when four-day cricket gave way to T20.
Surrey managed just one win in their first eight Vitality Blast group matches – a thumping 97-run victory over Glamorgan in which Tom Curran took a hat-trick before he also succumbed to injury.
Despite having filled the overseas slots with two of the best Twenty20 players in the World – Aussie opener Aaron Finch and South African leg-spinner Imran Tahir – the Oval outfit failed to qualify for the knockout phase of the T20 for the 10th time in 13 seasons.
They did sign off in the Blast with four wins out of five, mostly in front of packed houses at the Oval, which accommodated 165,000 spectators over seven home games.
Surrey’s women started well in defence of their Kia Super League title, before they too found 2018 hard to live up to; the Stars winning just one of their last seven group matches.
Ollie Pope had returned from the shoulder injury that had put him out of action for three months – picked up fielding against Essex in the Royal London – to score 221 against Hampshire in the County Championship, though not before Surrey’s player of the season Rikki Clarke had taken 7-74 with the ball.
Pope’s reward was inclusion in England’s squad for next month’s Test series against New Zealand. However, the supremely talented, but off colour Ben Foakes was overlooked, despite the selectors’ decision to take the wicketkeeping gloves away from Yorkshire’s Jonny Bairstow.
Foakes was burdened, perhaps, by being given the captain’s armband in the absence of Rory Burns, whom Surrey can expect to see very little of for the foreseeable now that he is centrally contracted to England – likewise Sam Curran in Test cricket and Tom Curran and Jason Roy in white-ball terms.
Despite having had the better of the draw with Hampshire at home, Surrey suffered what director of cricket Alec Stewart described as a “self inflicted” 272-run defeat at Southampton.
Head coach Michael Di Venuto, who had become increasingly frustrated by Surrey’s performances, went further. He said: “I’ve been involved in a lot of cricket, watched a lot of cricket and played a lot of cricket …and the last two days, what we dished up there, is some of the worst cricket I’ve ever seen.
“If you look at where we are in the table, the averages and the way we have played this season, we’re carrying a lot of people.
“You just can’t do that and expect to play good cricket.”
What followed was Surrey’s first defeat by an innings in three years, as Essex showed why they were on the brink of clinching a second championship title in three years (shortly before becoming this season’s T20 champions).
The Oval outfit’s 162 and 151 at Southampton followed by 174 and 181 at Chelmsford meant they had been bowled out for less than 200 four times on the trot in the County Championship for the first time since 1986.
It not only underlined the degree to which they had sunk in 2019, but that this winter’s priority has to be strengthening the top order.
The decision will no doubt go hand in hand in terms of identifying the right man as overseas player.
If that person could also be captain – allowing Foakes to focus on his game – that would be a real plus.