Published: 14th October, 2018
Ich Dien, the mediaeval German motto that sits beneath the Prince of Wales’ Feathers that make up Surrey’s badge, has never been as much a focal point of the Club as it currently is under Captain Rory Burns.
Literally translated as ‘I Serve’, the phrase was the backbone to Surrey’s first County Championship title in 16 years this summer.
After his appointment to the role in December 2017, Burns sat down with T20 captain Jade Dernbach and the Club’s management staff in order to review the team’s culture and decipher what it means to represent ‘The Rey’.
Using a previous ‘Team First’ document that had applied to all Surrey squads as a template, Burns joined forces with Dernbach and Psychologist Andrea Furst to compile the thoughts of his players into one guide that would set the standards for the squad every time they came to work.
Burns is one of many Surrey Academy graduates in the current squad and, at 28, has been a regular in first team set up for the best part of a decade and often reflects on how the stewardship of Gareth Batty prepared him to step up to his leadership role.
While he has always enjoyed the unique atmosphere that comes with representing a county like Surrey, he saw his time as Captain as an opportunity to put the respect that he believes should be held for the shirt and the badge into writing. That’s where ‘I Serve’ was born.
With the Specsavers County Championship trophy still settling in at the Kia Oval and the opening batsman basking in the glow of his first England call-up, he took us through the birth of the document.
“The culture in the dressing room has been good throughout my time in the first team but it’s never been defined.
“For me, this was about defining day-in-day-out how we want to go about this. It was borne out of conversations we had towards the end of last year about our Team First document that was generic to the club. The I Serve process was about making it specifically for our dressing room.
“All the lads had individual conversations with Andrea to pool our thoughts together and that got left to Andrea, Jade and I to put a document together. Everyone facilitated the point of putting their thoughts in but it’s more specific for that squad of players.
“Everyone needed to feel like they had some input into what that document was so it ends up becoming something for the whole group, not just one bloke in a dictatorship speaking out to the room.”
“If you ask someone for blind loyalty then it will most likely be questioned whereas if everyone has contributed to the process, it is more likely you will have buy in from the entire group.
The all-conquering New Zealand rugby union side and the environment that has led them through this current era of dominance have long been a source of inspiration to many in sport.
Burns is no different, citing the book ‘Legacy’ by James Kerr as an excellent insight into the fundamentals of representing the All Blacks.
As with the New Zealand squad, Burns was keen to ensure that Surrey’s adopted phrase wasn’t to be seen as authoritarian but instead something that could be owned by both senior and junior players in the group.
While the actual contents of the document are sacred amongst the players, Burns sees the list simply as a set of guidelines that help to create the best workplace environment possible.
He said: “This is a very big Club and we do things in our own way so we needed to have our own document that we could draw inspiration from as we are going about our business. It’s given us something to always fall back on and the phrase I Serve now gets dropped in a lot of the time.
“We’re not waving around a document referencing it but a simple thing like turning up in the right kit is something we’ve bought into and if you don’t do it someone will mention that it’s not I Serve.
“It’s helped massively in the fact that we don’t even have to say anything now and the boundaries are very clear for us if we are to reach our goals.”
Even following on from the democratic process that saw every member of the professional squad given their chance to make their thoughts known, Burns still remembers the knot in his stomach before presenting the final document to his teammates.
“I was quite nervous when I first went to the lads with a PowerPoint – something I probably haven’t done since school. We had a players’ meeting and I asked the boys for five or ten minutes to run through the whole document and that was that.
“I knew that because they were our words and our values as a group I was sure they were going to be received well but it’s still nerve-wracking to present anything you have put a lot of work into.”
Burns’ first year as Club Captain could hardly have gone better in the red ball game.
10 wins, nine consecutively, took his team to 254 points and saw them seal the title with two matches to spare.
On a personal note, Burns was far and away the competition’s top run scorer with 1359 runs to his name – including four centuries and seven half-centuries.
His fifth consecutive season beyond 1000 first-class runs also earned him a call-up to England’s upcoming Test tour of Sri Lanka and the Cricket Writers’ and PCA Player of the Year awards as well as four gongs at the Club’s annual event.
Exactly how much of that success can be attributed to the I Serve attitude that has consumed the dressing room is hard to pinpoint, but Burns is clearly grateful for the way it was received within the squad.
As Captain, the Epsom-born batsman was always aware his role was to support his highly talented squad in performing the roles that have made them first-class cricketers rather than trying to alter them as players and people.
“Everyone brings their own personal set of qualities to situations and it’s important not to try to change that.
“The way boys like JRoy, Sammy [Curran], [Ollie] Popey go about T20 is something you can’t teach and that’s an innate quality they have to enjoy the big stage and produce the goods,” he said.
“A lot of my captaincy is allowing people to express themselves and doing what they need to do and making sure you back them because that’s when they will produce it.
“If you implore someone to go about their task using their skills, you’re going to get a better response than if they had to stick to the manual.
“I could never hit the most textbook cover drive but I have still got a cover drive that works and scores runs.
“Technique is important and you have to be in a good position to hit the ball but a lot of it comes down to what is going on between your ears. That’s all in the preparation in terms of gameplans, match situations and the best way to overcome a certain scenario.”
In Surrey’s squad of 26 players that featured throughout the Division One campaign, 14 came through the county’s strong network of clubs & schools and then the Surrey Academy headed up by Gareth Townsend.
Complimenting that local talent was the international knowhow of signing Morne Morkel and the three overseas players who all featured at different points in the year; Dean Elgar, Theunis de Bruyn & Aaron Finch.
While many of the 14 home-grown players have grown up together and know each other better than they know their loved ones, Burns also insists he had no qualms about introducing I Serve to the international players who had been handpicked for their character as much as their ability by Director of Cricket Alec Stewart & Head Coach Michael Di Venuto.
“Our dressing room environment is one that takes people in and gets them around us quite quickly. We’re a very open group and that showed with the way Morne fit in. There are characters that may not fit in but they may not be the sort of blokes you want in your dressing room.
“Finchy, Elgar, Theunis & Morne are all the sort of men you want with you so we didn’t have to sell them the idea of I Serve because they could see what our culture was and these guys used their experience to improve upon that idea further. It was a seamless fit for them to get involved.”
Historically, Surrey have won titles in clusters.
The 1950s side of Stuart Surridge, Peter May, Jim Laker, Tony Lock, Ken Barrington, Micky Stewart and Alec & Eric Bedser ruled the land for much of the decade before Adam Hollioake led a team including Alec Stewart, Mark Butcher, Martin Bicknell & Graham Thorpe to three titles in four years.
Burns insists that his current side can’t now afford to rest on their laurels after one Championship triumph if they are to fulfil their potential.
Any player not touring during the winter will be back in the gym with Strength & Condtioning Coach Darren Veness in November and that’s when the focus will switch to retaining their crown.
With a new season will come fresh faces – Liam Plunkett & Jordan Clark have joined the Club – and different ideas. That will naturally bring about changes to the I Serve document that ensure it is relevant for the entire squad and the challenges that await them in the 2019 campaign.
“I don’t think it’s something that can just be rigid. Documents like that, that are about how people go about their business always change over time.
“You have to keep developing and now that we’ve done it once, everyone appreciates how much hard work it is to win a Championship and that starts again in November for us.
“I Serve is a simple message; come in, achieve what you need to achieve, be a good bloke and don’t ever stop trying to improve day in, day out.”