Surrey win County Championship: How county put trust in youth to end 16-year title wait

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Champions Surrey must push on - Stewart

Surrey's 16-year wait for County Championship glory is over - a wait that appeared unlikely after the county's previous title win in 2002.

That was Surrey's third title in four seasons and an Adam Hollioake-led squad appeared set for many more four-day trophies in the years to come.

But the Lord's Taverners' Trophy has been on a tour around the country since, even rocking up again north of the River Thames in Middlesex's hands as recently as 2016.

At times, big names and big personalities have come to Surrey in a bid to reclaim that title. A few were cast aside in the process after failing to deliver.

This season, though, there have been few blemishes in a so-far unbeaten 2018 campaign with Surrey wrapping up the Championship with two games to spare.

Some established names of the county and international game are in their ranks, but a crop of up-and-coming, exciting youngsters also look destined to deliver more success.

The wait to regain the trophy

Morne Morkel and Rikki Clarke walk off after guiding Surrey to victory against Worcestershire
Morne Morkel and Rikki Clarke begin the title celebrations for Surrey at Worcester

"It's been too long," Surrey director of cricket Alec Stewart told BBC Sport. "But there's been a lot of work on and off the field to get us here.

"We've got to enjoy it, but we want more of it."

Chief executive Richard Gould revealed how player recruitment has been key to delivering this title.

"It's been lovely to see so many of our young players, who've come through the system, be a key part of it alongside some more experienced, world-class heads leading them along the way," he said.

Gould made the move to The Oval from Somerset in March 2011, but the rebuilding process had started well before that.

"I remember 2003 being a very transitional time," recalls BBC Radio London's Mark Church, who started doing ball-by-ball commentary on Surrey that season.

"There was the generation of Adam Hollioake, Alec Stewart, Graham Thorpe and Mark Butcher at the back-end of their careers.

"If there's a group of players like that who all start moving on at the same time, it's very difficult to replace."

Australian Steve Rixon tried to start that rebuilding work, but Surrey were beaten by then part-timers Ireland during his tenure in the C&G Trophy as the trophy cabinet began to gather some cobwebs.

Rixon was followed by former player Chris Adams, who oversaw successes in one-day cricket and promotion back from Division Two of the Championship.

Surrey win the 2002 County Championship
Surrey claimed their third title in four seasons when they lifted the 2002 County Championship

Adams also helped bring in players like future club captain Gareth Batty, heralded as a key facet in moulding the current Surrey dressing room mentality.

But Adams' time in charge was sadly marked by the death of batsman Tom Maynard in June 2012, which subsequently led to then captain Rory Hamilton-Brown leaving the club.

Adams and assistant coach Ian Salisbury were sacked midway through the following summer, with club legend Stewart and bowling coach Stuart Barnes taking charge.

Stewart's move from executive director to director of cricket seemingly began a shift in trusting youth over experience.

Graeme Smith, Ricky Ponting, Kevin Pietersen, Hashim Amla, Gary Keedy and Vikram Solanki had all been brought in before then to try to deliver success in the short term.

But a crop of promising youngsters in the academy started getting a look in when former South Africa coach Graham Ford became arrived in October 2013.

"Ford's attitude was 'let's play them, it might hurt for a while, but let's give them a chance," said Church.

"That was a group including Rory Burns, Arun Harinath, Zafar Ansari and the Curran brothers. Gareth Batty as captain took it by the scruff of the neck and laid the foundations for what was to come."

Ford moved on in 2016 and handed the reins to Michael Di Venuto, who alongside Stewart has recruited players including Mark Stoneman, Scott Borthwick and the returning Rikki Clarke, a part of that successful side in 2002.

Sam Curran, Ollie Pope, Ryan Patel and Amar Virdi then and now
Sam Curran, Ollie Pope, Ryan Patel and Amar Virdi have all come through Surrey's academy to become key members of the first team

Sri Lanka wicketkeeper-batsman Kumar Sangakkarra also arrived as overseas player to not only add a significant weight of runs through his own performances, but become a mentor for younger players.

"This title's been a process in the making a good few years before I arrived," Di Venuto told BBC Radio London. "Graham Ford worked with the boys to win Division Two and, in a way, I was lucky to come in at that stage.

"There's exceptional young talent in this group and what I saw was that they needed some experienced heads and winners around them."

Credited with bringing that group on has been academy director Gareth Townsend, who Stewart heaped particular praise on.

"He's done a great job of handing them on once they finished their education," he said.

"Michael and I have always wanted to get them in at a young age, accelerate their rate of learning so that they become part of an established group of players at a much younger age."

Captain Burns set for England bow

For five seasons in a row, Burns has surpassed 1,000 County Championship runs.

This September, the 28-year-old not only looks set to finish the season lifting silverware, but clutching a boarding pass for England's tour to Sri Lanka in October and November.

"He's 100% the right man," Stewart told BBC Sport. "It shouldn't even be a discussion, he should be inked in to the squad now.

"I trust the selectors to make the right decision. Rory's done it for four years now and scored heavily when it matters.

"He's a quick learner who's therefore earned the right to play. I believe technically and mentally he can settle into the highest level."

Rory Burns
Rory Burns has struck four County Championship centuries this season

"He leads from the front as captain," said Church. "He captained England Lions in a tour match against India A in July and finally got the chance to show the England management what he's about.

"Since then, he's racked up more hundreds. He's a good player of spin, it'll be tough in Sri Lanka but England will be getting a guy in form."

With two Championship rounds to play, Burns has already notched up 1,241 runs at an impressive average of 68.94.

Di Venuto added: "He's had an absolutely outstanding season and hopefully he'll be rewarded soon for that with international honours."

Can this title start a new Surrey dynasty?

While the title win in 2002 may not have led to a dynasty of more trophies in the following years, signs are in place Surrey could become the team to beat in four-day cricket.

"The challenge is can we win it again next year?" Stewart said. "There's a nice group of players and with hard work and the quality of the group we've got here, we can make it happen.

"Words are easy, we need to make sure we make it happen on the field."

Ollie Pope
Ollie Pope made his Test debut against India in August and could also be on the tour to Sri Lanka

New faces are already on their way to The Oval in Liam Plunkett and Jordan Clark from Yorkshire and Lancashire respectively, seemingly poised to step in for that crop of England internationals.

"I think they've planned ahead extremely well," said Church. "It's been very clever and shrewd, looking three to four years down the line.

"People can't go on forever, even though Rikki Clarke is a bit like Benjamin Button. He gets better the older he gets, but he's not going to be there until his eighties.

"Morne Morkel will still be there, that signing's been a stroke of genius and everyone knows what he brings to the party.

"On top of that, there are the likes of Will Jacks, Ryan Patel, and Amar Virdi, who've all come through the academy and established themselves.

"Everything's in place to ensure they can do their best to stay at the top."

Morne Morkel, Rikki Clarke, Tom and Sam Curran
Morne Morkel, Rikki Clarke and Tom and Sam Curran have been prolific with the ball for Surrey this season

The evergreen Clarke admits the 2018 title win will "live long in the memory".

"I've been with Surrey since the age of nine," the all-rounder told BBC Radio London. "It's something I never thought would happen coming back to the county.

"Knowing I'll finish my career at this amazing club means a lot to me. In 2002, we had an amazing line-up with stars right through the club and I believe we've got that again now.

"Michael Di Venuto and Alec Stewart have really pushed the youngsters, but those who've come through have really earned their places. They haven't been given them on a plate.

"There's guys playing for England doing well and potentially more who will in the future and that ethos is great."