Published: 15th April, 2019
When the 1999 season opened, Surrey had not won the County Championship since 1971 but a hungry squad were out to change that.
Richard Spiller looks back two decades to a remarkable year.
It had looked as if Surrey would enter the 1999 season as County Champions for much of the previous summer.
Having led the table for much of the campaign, they lost two of the last three games including the final title-decider at The Oval, when Leicestershire delivered a crushing defeat by an innings and 211 runs to secure top spot, the hosts somehow sliding all the way down to fifth spot.
Had Surrey missed their best opportunity for a generation? The answer was a resounding no and skipper Adam Hollioake maintained that the lessons learned from the previous year’s disappointment were key to making up for it 12 months later.
The Championship was won by a resounding 56 points, wrapped up with two matches to spare, and it is doubtful anyone who witnessed the title being secured at The Oval on the sun-blessed evening of Thursday September 2, overcoming Nottinghamshire by 10 wickets, will ever forget it.
A major question at the start of the season was whether Surrey could overcome the absence of key players at the World Cup – being staged in England – for the early weeks of the season. It meant no Alec Stewart (the international captain) and Hollioake, given they were part of the host country’s squad (although both squeezed in early Championship appearances) while off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq was with Pakistan. Mark Butcher led the side in the opening eight matches and garnered five of the 12 victories.
Draws against Gloucestershire, when hail interrupted an arctic first day, and Worcestershire – losing more than two days at New Road – were followed by an eight-wicket victory over Northants, the first win at Wantage Road for 17 years, Alistair Brown’s unbeaten 110 then ensuring a four-wicket home success over Essex.
Even more thrilling was the climax to a seven-wicket win against Somerset, Surrey needing 49 from five overs and doing it with a ball to spare as thunder and lightning rolled around The Oval. Kent were despatched by an innings at Tunbridge Wells and Leicestershire would surely have been beaten at Grace Road but for rain washing out the final day, Butcher having made 259.
One of the nerviest moments came when Lancashire arrived armed with Muttiah Muralitharan, a 104 run lead on first innings (owing much to Stewart’s 95) proving invaluable. With the hosts chasing 157, Muralitharan completed a 10-wicket haul but Darren Bicknell, batting down the order specifically to blunt him, eked out victory by four wickets alongside Jon Batty from the tense position of 121-6.
Now Saqlain returned with his county flying along at the summit, renewing his spin partnership with Ian Salisbury to claim 17 wickets between them in disposing of Durham by 226 runs in the capital.
It set up an appetising clash at the Guildford Festival with Hampshire, leading the chasers and showing what an obstacle they would be by dismissing Surrey for 171 on the opening day. West Indian speedster Nixon McLean, having claimed four wickets, then smashed 70 to hand the visitors a lead of 151.