On the eve of the 2022 season, Surrey’s Director of Cricket, Alec Stewart, and Interim Head Coach, Gareth Batty, sat down to discuss the season ahead, the County Championship structure, the state of county pitches, English batting, and the club’s ambitions for the upcoming campaign.
Is the County Championship fit for purpose in terms of producing England players?
Alec Stewart: We’ve seen that whenever we’ve lost in Australia, which has been on numerous occasions, for a long, long time, there’s always an inquest. And we’ve just seen exactly the same thing. Yet another inquest. When we win here, when we beat Australia, nothing’s ever said. When Australia lose here they have an inquest about their Sheffield Shield. So will changes happen? Listening and reading, there seems a strong chance there will be, but county cricket is a breeding ground for Test cricket. And over the years, it has produced good players and it will continue to produce good players.
Should more Championship cricket be played in the middle of summer?
AS: We can all have ideas. I think I’m right in saying the constitution of the ECB is that the counties have a vote and it has to be two-thirds for any change? So it’s going to come down to the people in place and also, with the constitution of the ECB, the counties.
Are you pleased with return of promotion and relegation?
AS: I am, I think there needs to be consequences to performance, I’ve been strong on that.
There is a lot of debate about pitches in England…
AS: Each county has a responsibility to produce what they believe is a good cricket pitch. I think an interpretation of what a good cricket pitch is can vary. And also you don’t want every pitch to be the same or the cricket can become quite bland. I think I read there’s actually more runs per wicket scored in April than any other month. So I think it’s an easy thing to say but if the stats say that more runs are scored in April per wicket taken then perhaps that doesn’t back it up.
Has England’s winter exposed certain technical issues among some Test batters?
AS: We’ve still got good players. County cricket will produce good players. You’ve got excellent coaches. And then when the players go up a level it is a massive jump, as it probably is from all domestic cricket around the world to international cricket. If you believe a player is good enough, then give them a real, real good run. Because of everything that international cricket throws out. You’ve always got to earn the right to play, but if you don’t feel a part of a set-up, you’re not going to be as relaxed as you would be when you’re playing for your county. Because it’s as much the top two inches as it is technically. And that’s why I say you need selection to be strong.
Gareth Batty: There are less senior players in the England team so young players are having to fend for themselves. That is why it isn’t working at the minute. It isn’t the quality of the young players. It isn’t anybody in particular’s fault. This team is evolving. And the old guard is disbanding..
If we don’t start the game well, a youngster can be the best in the world, they are going to find it very, very difficult. And you only need to look at the best teams and how they operate over a period of time in different eras. These lads are having to go in and just boom, there you go, fend for yourself. So it needs time. And it needs a little bit of strength from the selection, the management, to go, ‘This is what we’ve got’. Australia in the Eighties, they made some decisions and they stuck with things for a long period of time and they were poor for a while. If you chop and change looking for a quick fix, which is the modern world that we live in, we are just going to be talking about this for years.
There is nothing wrong with county cricket. The England team is not as good as it was for a period of time because of those missing pillars, and we get a lot of people reacting to a bad performance in Australia as opposed to sitting back, taking some time and looking at things.
We’re talking about 22-25-year-olds. They need those senior players. And this isn’t banging on about older players playing for longer. It’s not about that. It’s just an observation.
Gareth, does having a few of England’s Test players returning with a point to prove suit you well in your first season as Head Coach?
GB: I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a good footing to start on. We’re talking about high-quality players. We’re talking about leaders within the dressing room. But also, it is my duty – our duty as a club – to get those boys back and help them back to where they want to be. There’s no point in getting that England cap and then never playing again. It’s going there and staying there. Which is a learning from yesteryear for me. We have to be forward-thinking – it’s for the greater good of those players as well. They want to be playing international cricket so it’s our duty to give them every single possible chance. Look, I’m also ambitious from this side of the table as well.
From what you’ve seen of Rory Burns in pre-season, does he seem in a good place to win his spot back in the Test side?
GB: I think he’s the best opener in the country. So, I don’t worry about him putting the best case across. I worry about who might select the team, but that is not our concern. We can’t control that. He’s our leader. He is our captain. He has done a wonderful job over a period of time. Now we need to give him a bit back. He needs us to take care of him for a moment because it is difficult, it doesn’t matter who you are, when you get left out by England. So we need to make his life easier, be sure that we’ve got him, and we definitely do. Hopefully we can create an environment for him and for the rest of the boys where this is like being home and he can thrive. We do want them to shoot for the stars and play for England. Yes. Ultimately, at times it makes it harder for us here. But if it was an easy job anybody could do it. So we’ve got to keep getting the next generation to act as cover when those guys fly. And we want them to, we really do. But also, we’re realistic. We’ve got some games to win, and some runs to score, some wickets to take and some games to win before that happens.
The post-pandemic environment – does it feel different to previous pre-seasons, perhaps a lighter environment?
GB: No, the opposite really. We have had to get them to put in a shift. The pandemic has been horrible for lots of people. But it has changed how professional sport operates because of certain things we’ve had to do. We’ve had to get the boys back doing work, stuff that they used to do, that they’ve forgotten that they used to do. So soft tissue injuries across sport have gone through the roof – football more than most – with hamstrings, and we’ve been exactly the same. It’s because you physically couldn’t get the work in because of the environment we found ourselves in.
We get what was going on in the world, but it’s our job from this side to put a benchmark down, now we’re back to being professional sportspeople, and we have to get them working. And I can honestly say that every single person has put a hell of a shift in this winter. Rightly so. But you can only be led to water and they’ve been drinking it and been magnificent. So I think there has been a correction.
The last 24 months have been very, very difficult for everybody, and it’s even worse when you’re in an international bubble. But we have to make that correction now so that as and when players get selected, they are ready to go to international cricket. We had to get that work back in them. So there have certainly been no cakes and tea for the boys. They’ve been working very, very hard. And it had to be that way.
AS: It’s good that crowds are back in, it feels like more purpose and more normality. It’s good that we are coming through this, and we’ll get a relatively normal season with a bit of luck.
There will be plenty more great stuff and new announcements going out across all our channels over the next week as we build up to the start of the season on Thursday April 7.