Old Trafford on a diluvial Friday afternoon. The first day of the game between Lancashire and Surrey has just been abandoned. The normally well-attended Primary Schools’ Open Day has been limited to a Mascots’ Race and even that became a straight five furlongs on the outfield rather than the Chorlton Gold Cup.
But if Manchester is conforming to its glum stereotype, the same cannot really be said of Surrey cricket these days. Officials at The Oval have striven mightily to demolish their reputation as metropolitan flash-Harrys who think they can build a team with a flourish of their cheque-book. Seven of the side which defeated Hampshire last Monday had come through the county’s Academy system, albeit the greying Rikki Clarke is more an Emeritus Fellow than an ambitious PhD. student.
What is more, two of that heptad, Ollie Pope and Amar Virdi, played leading roles in what was a notable victory. In other words things are unfolding rather as Alec Stewart, Surrey’s director of cricket, has planned.
“Since coming into this role I’ve wanted to bring Surrey players through,” said Stewart, who is beginning his fifth season in charge. “When I took over there were a lot of people who had been brought from outside but I believe we now have a nucleus of players who understand what Surrey is and what it means to play for Surrey. That rubs off on everyone and sends a clear message that we give our own an opportunity.”
“In the past we’ve been accused of being a cheque-book county and some of that was fair. Will we ever lose that tag? We’re trying but it is a question of people’s perceptions. Recently we’ve had a few who have come through as professionals and they are beginning to perform. There may be one or two years when we don’t have that quality but as a rough guide my aim is that 60% of our staff should have come through the Surrey system. That’s my challenge to the academy and age-group set up. And recently there have been some nice stories. Rory Burns first played for us as a nine-year-old, he’s now our captain.”
But anyone who has run a first-class side knows it isn’t as simple as preferring local players. There are few things more dispiriting for younger players than the rhythm of defeat. Stewart judges people in such adversity because, “that’s when you see the true person” but sometimes it is necessary to recruit from overseas. Any county with the means to sign Kumar Sangakkara would have been daft not to.
“I want to sign a top-class overseas player for what he can do out in the middle and how they can help our players,” said Stewart. “Sangakkara was brilliant. Anyone batting with him for two hours in the middle learned a lot more than he would have done from having three months with a coach. Ben Foakes is the best example because and he and Sanga had a lot of good partnerships and now Ben’s batting has really kicked on.”
It is, though, about so much more than talent. Cricket is revelatory of character and tests players in ways no other sport quite manages. And even when players seem to have emerged as fledged professionals they still need guarding.
“I’m trying to protect our younger players in the same way that Alex Ferguson protected Ryan Giggs when he was perceived as a superstar at the age of 17,” said Stewart. “There is so much media and social media now that young players can start believing their own publicity. That’s the biggest concern but you can also have bad times as a young player, so we want to promote our own in a controlled way.
“They need to understand this is just the start. They can be taken in and then spat out very quickly. All we are saying to them is keep your feet on the ground. There will be dips in the graph but we don’t want there to be crashes. I want people writing about our players in a nice way but I don’t want the players in a situation where they might come out with a quote which makes sense at the time but which will make them look silly six months down the line. As their careers grow their media coverage can grow.”
Stewart knows many of his principles are also pursued elsewhere but applying them at Surrey presents its own challenges. It is important that the county does not miss players, whether they emerge via a more traditional public school route like Pope, who went to Cranleigh, or the more unconventional pathway trodden by Virdi, who attended the Guru Nanak Sikh Academy. And having identified a talent, Surrey will never prevent them coupling their cricket development with further education.
“We have an excellent scouting system and I’m big on making sure we don’t miss players,” said Stewart. “And we will never tell a player not to go to university. We tell them cricket may not last for ever so get your education done. There are times when we don’t pick academy players because their A Levels are coming up. In gap years we might suggest they go to Australia and we will line them up with clubs and coaches we know and then get feedback on them.
“When players go up a level and find there are other players as talented as them, some will work even harder to succeed and others will drop off because they don’t like the competition. You have to see if they will stand up in professional sport, which is cut-throat.”