Surrey fielded a staggering 34 players this summer due to international calls, injuries, Covid-19 and, of course, The Hundred.
With the new tournament stripping the Oval outfit of more playing resources than any other county, expectations for the Royal London Cup, scheduled to run alongside the razzmatazz, weren’t high. But, as it turned out, the South Londoners – at their best in the 50-over competition – reached the semi-finals.
It helped they had a settled side; albeit a settled side of red rather than white-ball specialists, considered unlikely to cut the mustard in The Hundred, and graduates from Surrey’s academy.
There was much to applaud as well as savour for those fans who put supporting their county ahead of being sucked in by The Hundred, which was marketed so heavily it attracted 510,000 spectators across 32 matches.
Surrey’s batsmen hit five centuries in the Royal London, two of which – Ryan Patel’s 131 against Notts and Tim David’s unbeaten 140 when Warwickshire were on the receiving end – were the fastest for the Oval outfit since 2007.
Jamie Smith heaped even more misery on Notts at Guildford by following up Patel’s pyrotechnics with a 16-ball fifty – the joint quickest in domestic List A cricket, equalling a record that had stood alone since 1990.
But David, who was signed as second overseas player towards the end of the T20 group phase, was the star of the show, averaging 68 and a six every 11 balls in the Royal London.
It secured the Singaporean an IPL deal, which means negotiating anything more than a fleeting return to the Oval in 2022 seems unlikely.
With the ball, Dan Moriarty, 22, continued to impress, and along with Cameron Steel – signed from Durham primarily to bolster the batting – wickets fell to spin at both ends. Conor McKerr, 23, also put forward a strong case for increased four-day opportunities with the new ball by taking 18 wickets – a haul only bettered by Glamorgan’s Joe Cooke – at 21.44.
But most encouraging of all was the poise with which the 21-year-old Smith skippered Surrey in the absence of Rory Burns and Hashim Amla, the club’s official captain and vice.
Armed, initially, with both Currans and Jason Roy, Surrey made an exuberant start to the Vitality Blast, winning each of their first three group fixtures in the T20. But after the trio headed off to play for England, performances suffered.
With Ben Foakes (hamstring) and Reece Topley (side strain) sidelined, Surrey were forced to throw the likes of Ben Geddes, 20, into the mix.
Surrey had to win their final group game to be in with a chance of securing a place in the quarter-finals, which they did, taking their points tally in the Vitality Blast to 15. But when the dust settled on the group phase the South Londoners were the only side with 15 points or more not to make it through.
To have got so close, but yet so far was tough on Will Jacks, who made 393 runs at 35.72 in the Vitality Blast, and seamer Gus Atkinson, who was Surrey’s leading T20 wicket-taker with 15 scalps at 14.86.
Surrey’s County Championship campaign provided as many lows as it did highs, which was deflating given they were as close to full strength as is possible, in this era of packed international schedules and franchise cricket, for the first 8 matches.
Within a month, away defeats to Gloucestershire and Middlesex, with a run-laden draw with Leicestershire in-between, scuppered any realistic chance of qualifying for Division One, and therefore a crack at the title.
When Amla – the South Londoners’ leading championship run-scorer – delivered with the bat, so did Surrey. But not having a settled attack made bowling sides out twice challenging.
They managed to do so in just three matches. It was no coincidence that they had the services of an overseas bowler on each occasion – Kemar Roach, when Hampshire were brushed aside at the beginning of May; Sean Abbott, when Gloucestershire suffered the same fate at the Oval; and Ravi Ashwin, when Somerset were bundled out for 69 on the last day.
It was disappointing that, with two matches to play when the final international of the summer was cancelled in controversial circumstances, Ollie Pope was the only England star to return to the Surrey fold for what remained of the 2021 campaign.
It was yet another opportunity to run the rule over some of the fringe players, but if Surrey learnt anything it was that inexperience and a lack of star quality is not a recipe for success.
Whether we’ll see the return of promotion and relegation in the championship not only depends on covid, but also The Hundred, which looks likely to be played in parallel in future, to give England’s players the chance to get mid-Test series red-ball exposure.
Stewart is keen to see the championship revert to two divisions, even in the knowledge that he’ll have to continue operating with one arm tied behind his back.
“We’re going to have to rebuild because of so many unknowns,” said Stewart. “We don’t know who will be playing for us next season, for instance who will be playing for England and how many players we’ll have in the IPL.”
PICTURES: KEITH GILLARD
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