Surrey’s highly-experienced bowling coach cannot quite believe the potential he sees bursting from the squad of English cricket’s new county champions.
There is not much about cricket that Azhar Mahmood either hasn’t seen or doesn’t know. Surrey’s highly-experienced 47-year old bowling coach, however, who played 21 Tests and 143 one-day internationals for Pakistan in a globe-trotting career, still cannot quite believe the potential he sees bursting from the squad of English cricket’s new county champions.
“There is a real challenge now for us as management here at Surrey,” said Mahmood, reflecting on a second championship title in five years for Rory Burns’ team.
“We as coaches need to get better and better, as much as the players need to get fitter and stronger still, because there is so much more to come from this group.
“Yes we are now county champions but, if we all get it right, what you will see in the coming years will be special. There is a tremendous amount of talent in this squad, and in particular a lot of young and very exciting young players. And, several times this season, the team had to respond during games when we went a bowler down through injury – and, every time, they did. That also shows real desire and togetherness.”
Mahmood played for 17 different domestic teams across the cricketing world, most of them in the subcontinent but also in South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand and England. And, although he only returned to the Kia Oval in a coaching capacity in March, he is already steeped in Surrey’s recent history. He knows the club, and the club well knows him, from his two spells as a combative all-rounder – the first from 2002 until 2007, and then from 2013 until 2016 following a five-season stint at Kent.
“I’d been trying to get Azhar back here at Surrey for quite a while, so I was delighted when he joined us again earlier this year,” said Alec Stewart.
Remarkably, Surrey’s title triumph was achieved following an almost total change of team management last winter, with the redoubtable Stewart the only constant in a winter of off-field disruption following the exits of Vikram Solanki, the head coach, and Richard Johnson, the assistant coach. Solanki left to take up the post of head coach at the Gujarat Lions and Johnson was appointed as Middlesex first team coach.
Gareth Batty, the former Surrey captain only promoted to assistant coach last October following his retirement as a player, was elevated to head coach in an interim role, while Jim Troughton was recruited as an interim batting coach and Mahmood also took on his job on an interim basis.
Mahmood’s belief that Surrey’s 21st championship title win should be only the start to a golden era for the club, if they get things right over coming seasons, is a view shared by his fellow coaches.
Batty, in particular, having been fully involved at Surrey as a senior player and in various coaching roles since returning from an eight-year sojourn at Worcestershire for the 2010 season, also knows that they must not fall away as they did after becoming county champions in 2018.
In that season the leading wicket-taker was veteran South African paceman Morne Morkel, with 59, while Rikki Clarke took 47 and Jade Dernbach 32. Other senior players included batsmen Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick, with Dean Elgar making seven championship appearances as an overseas recruit. They have all since either retired or moved on, while other players in that title-winning squad also no longer at the club are Arun Harinath, Theunis de Bruyn, Aaron Finch and Stuart Meaker.
This time, Surrey’s squad is far younger in average age and, as Mahmood points out, multi-skilled across all formats. Burns, captain now as then, was an ever-present too in 2018, with the three seasons in between coinciding with his regular absences on England Test duty.
Ollie Pope, Ben Foakes, Ryan Patel, Sam Curran and Will Jacks all played between six and 13 games in the 2018 campaign, as very young men, but since then the likes of Jamie Smith, Tom Lawes, Gus Atkinson and Ben Geddes have all emerged too from the prolific Surrey pathway. In a professional playing staff of 30 last season, no fewer than 19 are homegrown – with most graduating through the club’s age group teams – while an eye-catching 15 players, including Pope, Patel, Curran and Jacks, are under 25.