WHAT’S IT LIKE TO WIN THE COUNTY CHAMPIONSHIP WITH SURREY COUNTY CRICKET CLUB?
Bringing the County Championship title back to The Oval after 16 years is a moment which players, members and supporters can cherish – for all the glitz and glamour of a Lord’s final or T20 finals day, it’s the competition which runs through the entire summer and takes most love and labour.
Surrey have won the competition outright 19 times, also sharing it with Lancashire on another occasion, only Yorkshire (32) enjoying a better record.
No one could touch Stuart Surridge and Peter May’s teams when they won the County Championship seven times in a row. Micky Stewart joined the side in 1954 and – like Ken Barrington, another batsman off promise – found himself a cog in a well-oiled machine: “Kenny and I were the youngsters in the team, which was very experienced and knew what they were about.
“It was made clear from pre-season by Stuart Surridge that everything we did was about winning the title – every game, day, session and ball was pointed towards that goal. And as he won five out of five as captain, you had to say he was pretty good at it.
“One of the after-effects of the Second World War was that the average age of players was older, so Ken and I were the youngsters pretty much all the way through that period, including when Peter May took over in 57 and 58. What did we get when we’d won it? I think it was a free drink!”
“We were at our best in 1957 and we wrapped it up at Weston-Super-Mare in mid-August. Kenny and I still had the jobs of arranging the transportation of the bags, which meant finding taxis to transport them from the ground to the station.
“We didn’t get back to The Oval until midnight and the ground was locked up, so we had to throw them over the gate before we went home.
“By 1958 the team was getting a bit elderly and it was our worst batting display. But we might have still won it in 1959 – Sussex declared against Yorkshire, who went on and got the runs. We were playing Middlesex and they weren’t going to declare against us.”
It another 13 long years before Surrey won again and by then Stewart was captain and senior pro, desperate to win one final County Championship before his playing days were over.
Surrey’s chances appeared remote at best when they stood seventh on August 10 but five wins in a row meant victory another over Glamorgan at The Oval, in the penultimate match of the summer, would guarantee the title. But the Welsh side’s final pair hung on to force a draw, the moribund pitches ensuring Stewart’s side only took 20 wickets in a game at their home once that season.
It meant they needed six bonus points in the final match, against Hampshire at Southampton, if challengers Warwickshire’s haul was to be equalled, as Surrey already had 11 wins to the midlanders’ nine. They only took four with the bat after collapsing from 240-3 to 269, which meant a nervous wait until after the weekend.
But when leg-spinner Intikhab Alam had Richard Gilliatt caught behind by Arnold Long, that second bowling point was secured and the title was finally Surrey’s.
Robin Jackman, the 12th man, suddenly appeared on the field with champagne and Stewart’s wife Sheila embraced him on the outfield, much to the disapproval of the Daily Telegraph’s august cricket correspondent EW Swanton.
“Robin Jackman had played a pretty large part in us winning the title but we needed Bob Willis’s extra pace down there and I’d had the miserable task of telling Robin he wasn’t playing,” remembers Stewart.
“But being Jackers, he played his part and he’d had a word with the umpires, who had said it was okay to bring us out the champagne. So when Inti got the vital wicket, there was a lot of cheering and he appeared. The elation was tremendous.
“I didn’t really approve because we were doing it on someone else’s ground. Sheila had been sitting on the boundary edge and when we’d won it I called her on.
“I wanted to open in the second innings but Stuart Surridge told me I had to talk to the TV people who were there. We didn’t do so much of that sort of thing in those days.”
Whatever was in the champagne – and what followed it – was strong enough to turn Gordon Greenidge, the West Indies opener who had bowled just nine overs previously that season, into a bowler capable of taking five wickets as Surrey collapsed in their second innings and lost by four wickets.
Stewart had been due to retire at the end of that season, later changing his mind, and he treasures the solid silver desk pen he received from his own team of champions.
It was to be another 28 years before Surrey could call themselves county champions again, a period in which they finished runners-up to a magnificent Middlesex side under Mike Brearley in 1980, having taken third a year earlier and emulating that in 1986. Often among the leading teams, they rarely threatened to sustain their challenge when it really mattered, despite boasting two of the finest overseas fast bowlers in West Indian Sylvester Clarke (1979-89) and Pakistani Waqar Younis (1990-93).
One-day trophies in 1996 and 1997, under the guidance of coach David Gilbert, looked set to be followed by the Championship in 1998 only to run out of gas when it mattered, losing two out of the last three games. Even a win in the last one, over Leicestershire at The Oval, would have been enough but it was the Foxes who lifted the trophy on the committee room balcony, their hosts shattered by an innings and 211 run defeat and out of the prize money as they slithered to fifth spot.
Skipper Adam Hollioake admitted that the cruel lessons learned proved important 12 months later when, with former colleague Keith Medycott now in his second season as manager, unbeaten Surrey romped in by 56 points on the back of 12 wins in 17 games. Eight of those came in a row and it was the eighth, beating Nottinghamshire by 10 wickets in two days at The Oval, which sticks in the memory of all those who revelled in it.
Dismissing the visitors for 115 thanks to three wickets apiece for Mark Patterson – in the only Championship appearance of his career – plus spinners Saqlain Mushtaq and Ian Salisbury, Surrey were themselves bowled out for 199. A century for Usman Afzaal could only keep out the spinners for so long and it meant a target of 150 on the second evening.
Mark Butcher (81no) and Ian Ward (55no) set out boldly and got close enough to persuade the umpires to allow the extra half-hour, Hollioake raising the Championship trophy and unleashing celebrations which went on for many an hour in the dressing room, pavilion, nearby pubs and restaurants and assorted establishments across the capital.
Mike Soper, who had become chairman four years earlier after a considerable period of turmoil at The Oval, recalls it vividly: “I’ve never forgotten the outpouring of emotion which winning that Championship produced. There had been divisions in the club, which were happily well over by then, but the reaction it drew, and the love of the club it underlined, is something which will always stay with me.
“Paul Sheldon, who had become our chief executive shortly after I took over as chairman, felt exactly the same way and when we sat down the next day, admittedly with pretty heavy heads, we wanted to do something which would thank the members of the club for staying with us through such a long period without success.”
The result was that during the final match of the season, against Yorkshire, drinks in the pavilion were sold at 1971 prices. At 20p per pint of beer – it was around £2 in most pubs – and £1.50 for bottles of wine, it’s little surprise that the match is still widely remembered by members even if their recall of the match (a rain-hit draw) is understandably hazy.
When Soper told his counterpart at Yorkshire about the scheme and asked whether they had tried anything similar, the reply was instant: “No bloody fear.”
Ian Ward, now a highly-respected Sky Sports cricket presenter and commentator, admits the 19 years since that first win have dulled his memories a little.
“It was a magnificent night when we won it but I could have sworn it was the final match of the season. I can’t remember one ball of the two games which came after it but maybe I had zoned out. We’d won and that was what mattered.”
Jon Batty had been an integral part of the 1999 team, appearing in 14 out of the 17 matches, yet a broken eye socket suffered in early August had sidelined the wicketkeeper and – when Surrey beat Notts – he had been with the second team just down the road at Beckenham, returning speedily to take a full part in the celebrations.
A year later he again, on occasions, ceded the gloves to Alec Stewart – now keeping full-time for England and with central contracts having been introduced.
But this time Batty the satisfaction of having the perfect view when skipper Adam Hollioake took a low catch third slip to dismiss Saurav Ganguly off Alex Tudor which earned the final point needed, Surrey having arrived at Old Trafford needing just one to retain their title.
Having gone unbeaten a year earlier, they had opened the new era of two-division Championship cricket by winning just one of their opening half-dozen games – and that by a mere two runs in a thriller at The Oval in which Hampshire’s last pair added 100 – and losing twice.
Once they got motoring, there were seven straight victories including wins against a strong Leicestershire side twice inside 15 days – separated by a vital success over Yorkshire – powered by Alistair Brown’s 295 at Oakham School and Martin Bicknell’s 16 wickets on his native Guildford turf.
“There was something very special about being on the field together when we won it in 2000,” says Batty. “I wasn’t playing in the game in 1999 and we actually became champions in 2002 without being on the field when others dropped points. Sharing that moment when you have sealed it on the field is something which you can’t beat.
“We made a poor start and what stood out about 2000 was that it was in the new Division One, which meant the standard was higher. We knew it was going to be harder, as defending champions for one thing and having to play the leading sides twice.
“But we had taken a lot of confidence from winning the previous year and felt we could win any game, which was very important in a tight spot like the Hampshire game.”
A lower-order – inhabited by the likes of Saqlain Mushtaq, Ian Salisbury, Bicknell and Tudor – meant bowling out Surrey was a formidable task for any team, Batty adding: “Keith Medlycott used to challenge the bottom six to score as many runs as the top five. It was something he put a lot of store in.”
Wrapping up the title on day one at Old Trafford was all very well but it had its downside: “We celebrated on the field but we had a game to win as well.”
As it was, a rain-affected draw allowed Batty to claim his only first-class wicket – Michael Smethurst the unfortunate victim – and while he looks back on his playing time at the club with pride, his current involvement gives plenty of satisfaction too. Head of cricket at Caterham School, he was also assistant coach to Richard Bedbrook this year in Surrey Stars’ successful pursuit of the Kia Super League crown.
He’s also revelled in his old county returning to the top of the County Championship: “It’s great to see. However many games you play, it’s a huge feat to win it because you have to work so hard throughout the season. There are so many things that have to come together.
“It’s great to feel part of it and I thought Alec Stewart’s idea of holding the capped players’ dinner during the season was fantastic. It showed the young players in the current squad what it means to be part of Surrey’s heritage and how they can become part of that. To me that was a very special night.”
Elder statesman in 2018, Rikki Clarke was the young pup 16 years earlier, unknown one minute and stroking centuries the next.
Surrey’s attempt to complete a hat-trick of titles in 2001 had never got going and they finished fourth, even flirting briefly with thoughts of relegation – after their only defeat of the season, by Glamorgan at The Oval in August – but making a statement by thrashing their successors as champions, Yorkshire, by an innings and 46 runs in the penultimate match. Even then, four points from the final match, against Glamorgan in Cardiff, were needed to cement a place in the top division.
Ben Hollioake had seemed to come of age by scoring a wonderful century in that match but at the start of the following season Surrey and the cricket world were mourning his tragic loss in a car accident, suffered in late March.
His team-mates, struggling to cope with the loss, made an electrifying start to the new campaign, winning their first three matches under vice-captain Mark Butcher, Ian Ward taking charge when his opening partner was away on Test duty. Skipper Adam Hollioake remained in Australia until midway through the season and his absence offered an opportunity Clarke to display his talents.
The lanky 20-year-old, who had risen through the same Guildford club which produced the Bicknells had been given his first-class debut against Cambridge UCCE at Fenners, making an unbeaten 107, following that up with 41 in his first Championship outing at Old Trafford and 153no two games later against Somerset at Taunton.
By winning 10 games out of 16, Surrey were champions with more than 40 points to spare, becoming champions with two matches in hand. Had Warwickshire’s tail not held out it would have been achieved at Edgbaston but Surrey were off the field when the moment came – during the England v India Test at The Oval – as Warwickshire and Kent were held to draws by Lancashire and Somerset respectively.
The belated on-field celebrations came by way of beating Hampshire by 123 runs at the Rose Bowl and then annihilating Leicestershire by 483 runs at home – Clarke missing both as England picked him for the Champions Trophy after being impressed by his 580 runs at 44, 10 wickets and electrifying fielding.
“It all happened pretty quickly, from being in the second team to playing regularly for the first team and even missing those last two games,” says Clarke looking back.
“I guess I was the Ollie Pope of the day!
“I think I was the only non-international in some matches because we were so strong and had such a well-established side. When the Test players came back you had some really good players missing out, it was that competitive. You were allowed two overseas players that season and we were very lucky to have two such good ones in Saqlain Mushtaq and Azhar Mahmood.”
He added: “It was obviously very difficult at the start of the season and there was a determination to win something for Ben and for Adam too.”
Clarke has as much experience as any in the English game of winning County Championships nowadays, having played a leading part in Warwickshire’s 2012 campaign. And who is to say that he has finished yet?