BY MARCUS HOOK
As Surrey’s director of cricket Alec Stewart balances the expectation on Surrey to win back-to-back County Championship titles with plotting where the team will be two or three years from now.
The 56-year-old’s mantra continues to be having competition for places as well as homegrown players forming the nucleus of the side.
“We don’t want to have to pick players because we’ve only got 11 we can pick,” said the former England captain, who won three championship titles with Surrey as a player.
“We’d rather have tough conversations and say you’re not playing because we can only play 11.
“We’ve brought in Liam Plunkett and Jordan Clark, but we’re also expecting England call-ups. We want England call-ups and, therefore, we want to have a squad where we have people available.
“If you look at our squad everyone is good enough to play in the first team. There will be injuries, there will be loss of form, but we’ll also try, when we plan our bowling, to rest and rotate. That hasn’t been the case in the past because people have been injured. So, we’ll look to do that and not bowl people into the ground.
“If we can get that group working as we want then everyone should be happy.
“But we want people, when they play, to play in a relaxed manner, but also to know if they don’t perform there will be guys in the second team banging on the door.”
Surrey resumed County Championship Division One duties yesterday, with Essex the opposition at the Kia Oval.
Stewart said: “Even though we’re defending champions, we’ve gone about our business over the winter exactly the same. The message we’ve given the boys is that if we’re as good as last year then that’s okay, but we’ve got to be better than last year.
“Whereas we were the hunters, we’re now the hunted. Everyone will be trying to catch us up and, therefore, through hard work and trying to improve, we want to try and keep that gap.
“It’ll be easier said than done because a lot of other counties have strengthened. Notts have brought players in. They’ll also have Stuart Broad available for a decent amount before the Ashes starts.
“Essex will have Alastair Cook, which is like having a world-class signing. For them to have him available all season means they’ll be stronger again. We’ve got to make sure we are, minimum, at the levels of last year. That’s why we’ve strengthened.”
But unlike Hampshire, Notts and Warwickshire – all big clubs with the resources to develop their own players – Surrey are showing the others how it’s possible to invest in youth while, at the same time, be successful.
“I won’t talk about other counties, but we’re proud to bring ours through,” said Stewart. “That’s the challenge I want – to have the nucleus of our squad Surrey-based. It’s not only a good story, because if you’re talking to the 14 to 16-year-olds in our age group sides and in our academy, you can tell them they’re only two or three years away, potentially, from playing in our first team.
“Rather than bring in a peripheral player from another county, we go young because a youngster will learn far more than someone who is 28 or 30. But it’s important that when we bring a young player in that he’s good enough.
“We might have a couple of barren years coming up, because things go in cycles. We can’t keep bringing people on because there’s no room. That’s a challenge. When I took this job, that was what I said to Gareth Townsend, who runs the Surrey academy: ‘Provide me with players, because I don’t want to be forced to go outside and get young players’.
“I’ll get in senior players, proven players to fill in the gaps, but I want to promote as many from within Surrey as possible.
“It’s almost a golden era. You’re not going to get the likes of Sam Curran and Ollie Pope all the time and that’s where you don’t always look at potential England players, you’ve also got to look a potential county players.”
The most recent product to roll off the Surrey conveyor belt is keeper-batsman Jamie Smith, who marked his first-class debut with a century, in the County Champion match against MCC in Dubai last month.
“What I think summed Jamie up was his celebration, or his lack of a celebration, when he got to his hundred,” said Stewart. “It was as if he was saying: ‘I’m just here doing my job.’
“There was no fist-pumping, there was no kissing of the badge. He is a very calm individual. He’s a really good kid – fiercely competitive, but in a nice quiet, controlled way.
“The way he batted – and Michael Di Venuto, our head coach, said it – it was like having a 35-year-old out there; yet there was an 18-year-old and a 21-year-old in Ollie Pope [who made a career best 251]. It’s a real credit to Jamie. A year ago, we took him out to Dubai, because, at that time, we had no Foakes and no Pope. They were with the England Lions and we wanted to take a wicketkeeper.
“We took him out of school at Whitgift to come on the pre-season tour. If you had turned up knowing there was one non-staff player you wouldn’t have said it was Jamie Smith.
“He then earned the right to get a contract and he’s just gone from strength to strength.
“Even though he’s got his feet on the ground, I’ll be protective of him. I’d much rather put a protective shield around our youngsters and let their cricket do the talking.”