BY MARCUS HOOKS
For Surrey, rather than being a game of two halves, 2020 was a season that ended in complete contrast to the way it started – reaching the final of the Vitality Blast on the back of nine successive victories in the T20, their best run in 16 years.
Sadly, a tenth eluded them and Notts carried off the title. But just over a month earlier Surrey’s record in all competitions read played six, lost five, tied one and won none.
After their third straight defeat in the four-day Bob Willis Trophy new head coach Vikram Solanki was almost lost for words, and a fourth prompted director of cricket Alec Stewart to lay the gauntlet down to the under-achievers.
It was all too reminiscent of 12 months earlier, when Solanki’s predecessor Michael Di Venuto said: “If they keep performing like that they can’t come whinging if they find themselves playing second team cricket.”
With Covid-19 leaving the ECB with little choice but to squeeze as much county cricket as possible into a truncated two-month schedule – which cut rest and recuperation to an absolute minimum – there was no second XI cricket to be demoted to and, besides, Surrey barely had 11 fit players at times.
With seamers Morne Morkel, Jade Dernbach, Conor McKerr, Liam Plunkett, Nick Kimber, Jordan Clark and Rikki Clarke all missing part, if not all, of the four-day campaign through injury, Adam Finch, on loan from Worcestershire, became an important member of Surrey’s red-ball outfit.
The spin duo of Amar Virdi and Dan Moriarty picked up the slack and both shone.
But the less said about Surrey’s batting the better. Being skittled out for 74 by Hampshire at Arundel was the ultimate embarrassment, given that another hour at the crease would have secured a draw.
Of the other 17 counties, only Gloucestershire (18.62) had an overall batting average that was inferior to Surrey’s 21.30.
It was no coincidence that Essex, who won the Bob Willis Trophy, had the country’s leading run-maker – Sir Alastair Cook.
Looking ahead to 2021, when sides will be permitted two overseas players, two world-class batters must top Alec Stewart’s list of targets.
But the competition proved to be cricket’s version of new kids on the block. Thirty players made their first-class bows in the Bob Willis Trophy, including James Coles, who, at 16 years and 157 days, became the youngest ever to take the field for Sussex.
There were several standout performers: Somerset’s Tom Lammonby (20), who made three centuries, Moriarty (21), who took 17 wickets in two appearances for Surrey, and Callum Taylor (22), who became only the sixth non-overseas player to score a hundred on debut for Glamorgan.
With every game being streamed live online, the engagement figures went through the roof.
That the format of the Bob Willis Trophy produced a final between the sides regarded by many as the best two in red-ball cricket – certainly those with the most potent bowling attacks – gave it validity.
So, expect more of the same in 2021, but with the initial phase (three groups of six) being home and away, instead of one or the other; and, in the second half of the season, the top two in each group forming a top division, the middle two a second division and the bottom two from each making up a third division with each team playing their opponents once.
In other words, no promotion and relegation, which, given Surrey’s problems at the top of the order is just as well. But for Covid-19, which resulted in a number of key players spending weeks on end inside England’s secure bubbles, the Oval outfit would likely have fallen through the trapdoor this summer.
But with games being played behind closed doors, the trade-off, for Surrey, is that the ‘One Oval Square’ development is well ahead of schedule. As well as lifting the ground’s capacity to 28,000 it will increase conference space significantly.
Given that events contributed substantially to the Club’s record pre-tax profit of £6.3million in 2019, the sooner normality returns, the sooner Surrey can make good the hit to the reserves they’re bracing themselves for this year.
On the one occasion spectators were allowed into the Oval to watch a competitive contest this summer – the Vitality Blast group game against Hampshire – Surrey broke their duck and, from then on, the South Londoners hardly looked back.
Having failed to reach the knockout phase in the domestic T20 in 10 of the previous 13 seasons, Surrey had been searching for a winning formula in Twenty20 cricket for some time.
The acquisition of Laurie Evans, from Sussex, who ended up making 363 runs at an average of 45.37 in the Blast, was inspired. But when Will Jacks bowled his first over in T20 in that victory over Hampshire, and promptly took a wicket, it was as if the final piece of the jigsaw had slotted into place.
Jacks delivered with bat as well as ball. His 309 runs at 34.33 and 13 wickets at 16.07 earned him the Professional Cricketers’ Association gong for the country’s most valuable player in T20 cricket.
When Twenty20 first came in 17 years ago, everyone said it sounded the death knell for spin bowling, but in this year’s Vitality Blast the proportion of overs bowled by spinners was the highest ever.
Using a wicket in the middle of the ground, and pushing the boundaries back as far as possible, Surrey trusted in the spin of Batty, Jacks and, of course, Moriarty (who bagged 17 T20 wickets at an average of 18.29).
But if they had an Achilles heel it was winning T20 games batting first. Just two of their nine victories were secured bowling last. Knowing this, perhaps, Notts won the toss in the final and stuck Surrey in.
Jason Roy (66) and Laurie Evans (43) added 90 in nine overs for the third wicket, but the Oval outfit’s total of 127-7 in 16 overs needed to be closer to 150 for Notts’ batting order to feel pressured.
Reece Topley showed the new ball venom that earned him an international recall after four years this summer, while off-spinner Jacks continued his transformation by snaring Joe Clarke and Samit Patel in the space of nine balls.
But Ben Duckett (53 not out) dropped anchor and, with the help of Peter Trego and Dan Christian (who had earlier taken 4-23 with the ball), Notts cantered home with 16 deliveries in the bank.
Surrey’s T20 skipper Gareth Batty said: “The ideal scenario would have been winning the toss and bowling first. There was a bit of dew, but I don’t make that an excuse. Notts were just better than us.
“From where we started out to where we’ve ended up, pretty good. But it doesn’t make it any easier stood here having lost a final.”
Batty, 42, who will sit down with Alec Stewart in the coming weeks to discuss whether he continues as a player-coach, or dons the tracksuit full-time, added: “Spin is thriving at the Oval that is for sure.
“I’ll have a chat with Stewie and Vik, and it will come down to whatever is best for the club. If it’s time for this old man to stand aside he will. If it’s time for the old man to keep strapping them on and doing the hard yards in the winter then he will.”
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