Firstly I must apologise for my extended absence from the blogosphere save for marking the signings of Smith and Ponting. In truth, there hasn't been a whole lot of other news to report in that time, but nonetheless I have neglected the blog. As well as continuing to maintain this venerable old girl as much as ever during the season, I’ll also be contributing to Cricinfo’s network of county supporter-bloggers, my first effort can be found here.
In any case, here we are just a matter of days from the start of the County Championship season. What will 2013 bring and are there reasons to be cheerful for the Surrey faithful after a distinctly sombre 2012 season?
There will likely be something of a shift, some of the success of the last three seasons in one day cricket may be foregone, hopefully in exchange for some better returns in four day cricket. A new captain will bring new methods. Rory Hamilton-Brown wasn’t a bad captain, he was given a massive job at a very young age, but he wasn’t especially good either. For all the instinctive bowling changes that won us CB40 matches, there was too often a lack of flexibility and adventure in four day cricket. Not to mention the occasional game where he just went missing, literally in the case of the Horsham game last year where he spent long periods off the field after a night on the town.
Graeme Smith is the big (physically and otherwise) reason to be cheerful, or at least hopeful, for 2013. The man who this year became the most successful captain in the history of Test cricket in winning his 49th test as leader of the South African team, should be available for around 10 Championship matches, as long as his troublesome ankle doesn't flare up. And when he’s not around mid-season there’ll be the small matter of the next most successful captain in test history - Ricky Ponting - in his stead.
Compared with last year there is a more experienced look to a pared-down squad. Given the goings on last season, that is surely a good thing. Last year runs were hard to come by, but even seen through the prism of one of the soggiest summers on record, our batting was poor. The recruitment of Smith and Solanki ought to help that, but the likes of de Bruyn, Davies and Roy know they will also have to improve on last year’s efforts. The bowlers plugged away admirably given the circumstances. Meaker was exceptional, Batty too. Lewis might have tailed off disastrously but he never stopped running in.
So what is realistic for the Championship this season? Just as it was last year, any talk of challenging for the title would be overly hopeful. Having said that, given the level of investment in the playing staff (and the recruitment of a new bowling coach – still no full time batting coach though) senior management can be forgiven for expecting better this year. Much better. In four seasons Adams has won 16 Championship matches, or roughly a quarter of all matches played. His predecessor Alan Butcher won closer to a third of his matches in charge. It’s a simplistic comparison to make, but not entirely unfair. Adams has been given the chance to overhaul the squad...twice. The level of resource he’s had at his disposal is unprecedented in the County game. The time for excuses has long since passed. I hope to see Smith given the freedom he needs to make the squad his own.
A season bumping along the lower reaches of the table shouldn’t be tolerated, we have the players to compete with the best of the division on our day, though the overall squad short of the very best. The difference between a good Division One side (we’re a good side) and a very good one can’t be boiled down to one thing, but batting depth is an important factor. Our bowling attack is the equal, at least, of a side like Warwickshire, but our batting is nowhere near as resilient. At the end of last season they had Jeetan Patel, a man with a batting average of 20, at number 11. To have someone like Woakes, who would comfortably bat in our top five, at number seven is such a luxury, and a key reason as to why they’re so tough to beat.
Surrey have to be aiming for fourth or better. It’d be nice to beat Middlesex who were excellent last year and have added to their side well over the winter. Aiming for mid-table might not sound terribly ambitious but Division One is very tough, and 16 games is a long old season. It goes without saying that the more games Smith plays, the better. Not just for his batting talents at the top of the order, though that will be most welcome, but also for his attitude and discipline.
So what will the make-up of the side be this season? There are probably two key issues at play; spinners and Chris Tremlett. When Gary Keedy was signed Chris Adams said that, as with much of the latter part of last season, two spinners would be employed particularly in home games. This creates something of a conundrum, especially when you consider the Tremlett factor.
England seem very keen to get Tremlett fit for the summer, which means Surrey will probably look to play him where possible. And why not? He’s a magnificent bowler. However the need to manage his workload probably means playing five bowlers, three seamers and two spinners. Last season a combination of Chris Jordan, Jewell, Spriegel, Ansari and de Bruyn provided fill-in overs. To begin with at least only Jewell and de Bruyn are available to do that job this time round. Having been omitted from the pre-season friendly squads, Jewell can (unfortunately) probably be discounted. Will captain and coach be happy enough to fall back on Zander de Bruyn’s medium pacers as a third seam bowling option? They may well do, but if not Gareth Batty has to bat in the top seven, which on the evidence of last season may be a bit ambitious. As for the remaining bowlers, Meaker and Lewis (because of his batting) are probably at the head of the queue, Dernbach and Linley in close pursuit.
The top order is pretty certain. Smith and Burns will open the batting, Arun Harinath must be given a chance to make the number three slot his own and Vikram Solanki will therefore have to make do with batting at number four. Five and six will likely be taken by de Bruyn and Steven Davies, and whether or not number seven is a batsman or Gareth Batty depends on the issues above. If it is to be a batsman then Jason Roy and Gary Wilson will have to duke it out, though personally I’d back one of those two younger men ahead of the admirable but ageing Solanki.
As I said above results in the limited overs games, and particularly the CB40 may be hard to come by. The power of Hamilton-Brown and Maynard is now gone, along with the very useful bowling of Matthew Spriegel and of course the exceptional fielding of all three. Players like Keedy and Solanki are unlikely to be able to maintain that standard in the field. The recipe for success in previous years, based largely around strangling the opposition with over after over of spin will have to be scaled back somewhat and another method will need to be found. Surrey in the Adams era have never quite managed to get to grips with Twenty20 and it’s hard to see that changing this season either. An appearance at finals day feels more unlikely than in previous seasons.
On balance I think most members would trade some of the consistent CB40 success of the last couple of years for a few more Championship wins. I know I would. That has to be the focus of this season and the winter recruitment is reassuringly red-ball focussed. After last year's stuttering and frustrating early run of fixtures, getting up and running quickly is very important.
Over the coming days I'll be doing an in depth preview of the options on the playing staff, starting tomorrow with the batsmen.