A new AJ Sports Surrey Championship campaign opens on Saturday and kiaoval.com will carry reports of each of the 18 rounds of action every Monday. Richard Spiller previews the battle ahead.
If new skipper Nick Stevens feels pressure as East Molesey chase a hat-trick of Premier Division titles, it’s not showing. He takes over from Dominic Reed, who stepped down after Moles secured back-to- back successes – no league action having been possible because of the pandemic in 2020 – in retaining the trophy with 50 points in hand, the race effectively over by the start of August. Stevens is smart enough not to get ahead of himself, though, recalling that a year before they had ended 39 years without the title, Moles had been involved in a relegation tussle which was only resolved on the final day of the season.
He says: “We take a practical approach to the season – the higher profile clubs with greater resources to recruit players are the ones everyone will look at. We just concentrate on winning games – last year we had a couple of really tight finishes early on but the confidence we took from that was important in the run we went on. You always look to make a good start and if that happens anything is possible. I’m lucky to have inherited a very good team from Dom and we’ve got pretty much the same group again.”
But East Molesey have lost leading scorer Marcus Campopiano, whose 670 runs at the top of the order made a big impact, after he departed to play National Counties cricket with Oxfordshire. Indian all-rounder Himmat Singh has been replaced by Tasmanian batsman/leg-spinner Mack Wright, originally scheduled to arrive 12 months ago before Covid regulations interfered. Stevens also hopes that Reed, whose 27 wickets and ultra aggressive batting in limited overs games made a major contribution, will also be present when family duties permit.
But Moles can also take confidence from the young players coming through, like brothers Harry and Toby Porter, who were heavily involved in their thrilling 10-run victory over Sandwich Town in the Conference Cup final. Stevens adds: “It’s important to regenerate through the club and introduce our younger players. We’ve never been into mass recruitment from outside, even though we’re always keen to welcome newcomers to the club, because we feel it’s the best way to ensure the future is successful.”
Sunbury were runners-up last year – albeit needing binoculars to see the side just over the Thames – and with Kevin Smith in charge again, they hope that the addition of South Australian import Liam Scott will help them close the gap, having claimed successive titles in 2015-16. Among the biggest threats to East Molesey’s hat-trick ambitions will be Weybridge, winners in 2018 and third last year despite never really hitting their stride. They have a distinctly international flavor to the side. Returning after a gap of five years is South African opener Sarel Erwee, who spent six
highly successful seasons at The Green from 2012-17, although selection for his country’s series against England in late summer may cut short that engagement.
Erwee will find himself alongside Surrey and England fast bowler Jade Dernbach – when coaching duties with Middlesex permit – after stepping down from the professional game last year. And a third fresh face is Craig Meschede, the ex-Somerset and Glamorgan all-rounder having made five T20 appearances for Germany, although former England batsman Nick Compton will be missing. Esher impressed last year by finishing fourth on their return to elite level and will be aiming to push on into the top three, their ranks including Justin Broad, who scored a century for Surrey’s second team against Durham last week. Ollie Sheen, having switched from relegated Cranleigh and in the Durham UCCE side, leads their attack.
Wimbledon boast the most illustrious title record, having done it 11 times but not since 2013, when they completed a treble. Jon Webb succeeds Oliver Swann – who has moved to Australia – as captain with Kiwi Jack Boyle to lead the batting.
Reigate Priory found themselves in unfamiliar territory last year, finishing sixth, particularly for a club which won five titles between 2005 and 2014, but any side containing the batting prowess of skipper Richie Oliver, once of Worcestershire, and former Somerset leg-spinner Michael Munday, should never be written off. Newcomer James Crosthwaite impressed by making a century in Priory’s one- run friendly defeat at the hands of Sussex Premier champions Preston Nomads.
For Normandy and Ashtead, seventh and eight respectively last year, the battle will be to consolidate their positions rather than face another fight for survival. Returning to the top level for the first time since 2013, Malden Wanderers have ensured they retained the services of opener Zac Elkin, the South African having amassed a remarkable 1,037 in
driving them to the Division One title. They were followed up by Sutton, where the all-round talents of former Kent all-rounder Fabian Cowdrey – one of a trio of spinners key to their success – will be
augmented by new seamer Jack Sissons.
Cranleigh and Banstead dropped out of the Premier and the latter begin their attempt to clamber back with a trip to Guildford, whose disappointing fifth-placed finish was their lowest overall position in the league since 1983. Warm-up wins over East Molesey and Normandy offer hope of better times to come.
How they finished last year
Premier champions: East Molesey; Relegated: Banstead and Cranleigh
Division 1 – promoted: Malden Wanderers and Sutton. Relegated: Leatherhead and Camberley
Division 2 – promoted: Dulwich and Wimbledonians. Relegated: Chessington and Worcester Park
Division 3 – promoted: Rutlishians and Hamptonians. Relegated: Churt and Addiscombe
Division 4 – promoted: Hampton Wick Royal and Chertsey. Relegated: Trinity MidWhitgiftians and
Staines & Laleham
Division 5 – promoted: Hampton Hill and Horsley & Send. Relegated: Alleyn and Byfleet