The Spin | Surrey eye history as ‘irreplaceable’ Alec Stewart looks to sign off in style

    If Surrey lift the County Championship trophy in September, it will be the first time any team has been crowned three years in a row since Brian Close led Yorkshire to the treble in 1966, 67 and 68 – when they also thrashed the touring Australians by an innings for good measure. Surrey wallowed down in 15th that year – collecting just four wins in 28 matches.

    The tables have turned a little since then. Where Yorkshire have slipped from calamity to catastrophe over the last few years, the good ship Surrey has sailed serenely on. But change is afoot. After 11 years as director of cricket and 23 years on the playing staff, Alec Stewart, Mr Surrey – he of the spotless whites and ironed collars, 6am gym stints and military posture – will be stepping down at the end of the season to spend more time with family, especially his wife, Lynn, who has cancer.

    Gareth Batty, Surrey’s head coach, who has worked with Stewart since 2022, knows how big a hole he will leave.

    “Alec is irreplaceable,” says Batty. “There is not a person in world cricket who can do the job at Surrey that he has, because of who he is and all the history he has with the club. All we can do is put our best foot forward and make sure we put all his hard work into practice.”

    The relationship between the pair has been prosperously successful – two Championships in two seasons – but how exactly does the communication between the director of cricket and his head coach work?

    “I suppose he tells me what to do and I do it!” says Batty. “He is the line manager and my role is more the day-to-day activities with the playing squad and he controls everything else, discussions with the board, the managers, the player contracts, the nitty gritty of professional sport. The DOC hires and fires and ultimately the buck stops with him. There are so many moving parts. We speak every day and, if not, we speak the next morning. There has to be a good relationship between us, between the three of us, with [club captain] Rory Burns, a fluid relationship. That part is going to be difficult to replace as well.”

    Burns, a regular fixture with the England team during the pre-Bazball era, had a curious season last year, guiding the team to the title but without making the runs he or the club would have expected. Batty, though, is confident he’ll be back with a bang in 2024. “I have utmost belief in Rory having a wonderful season both as a captain and batter. He’s the best captain in the county championship and anyone who doubts that can have a look at his trophy cabinet.”

    Barbadian pace bowler Kemar Roach, now 35, is back at Surrey for a fourth year. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

    The Surrey squad, who start the defence of their title against Lancashire at Old Trafford on Friday, is largely unchanged from last year – fan favourite Kemar Roach returns for a fourth year and Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes are expected to play a decent amount of Championship cricket, though the IPL will hoard the talents of Sam Curran and Will Jacks for the early rounds. The one big name signing was Dan Lawrence, Essex boy and man, who decided that Surrey were the club best suited to his ambitions. It is a risk, he goes from being the star attraction to having to make waves in a squad bursting with big names.

    “He will bring some energy to our side,” says Batty. “He made the move because he feels this is the only place to give him the best guidance to where he wants to get to, it is exciting that he is prepared to make the sacrifices to move. Hopefully we can add something to his bowling, there’s a lot in the tank in the spin department.”

    The one criticism that is thrown at Surrey, other than wide-eyed sighs over their money pot and favourable location, is their reliance on a battery of right arm seam bowlers, which has left Amar Virdi languishing in the second team and pushed Dan Moriarty to Yorkshire in the search for more opportunities.

    But Batty, an off-spinner with nine Tests under his belt, is not paid to weave romantic tales of twirly men. “As a player obviously I had a passion for spin, as a coach I have a passion to help 28 blokes win stuff. Will [the attack] be the same this year? It depends on how everyone is playing. I want spin to play a huge part but if you have the fast attack we have, the proof of the pudding …”

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    Surrey head coach, Gareth Batty (right), believes his team can build on last season’s title-winning performance. Photograph: Ben Hoskins/Getty Images for Surrey CCC

    Batty has been trying to draw some elements from outside the game, talking to Premier League football managers, increasingly using data – for example GPS tags on players to track movement in the field – so they can rest players better. But there’s no amount of science that can win you a Championship, it requires the sacrifice of bodies, sweat and a fair number of tears.

    “Obviously some of it is down to the size of the squad, or an element of luck or weather. We’re the same as everyone else, the advantage we have is that we’ve done it before. You do the hard grind, make good on mistakes and make more mistakes. We’ve been a good team but we can be so much better.”

    And is the Championship still the number one trophy, even for the young kids coming through in the franchise era?

    “They see what it means, I think we can say that the guys who put the work in and win a County Championship over six months feel complete as a player and a human being. Some franchise competitions can leave you feeling incomplete as a human being.”

    Alec Stewart, who still beats some of those young kids in the gym, may give a nod of approval.

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