Marcus Hook’s preview of the 2023 cricket season – as Surrey get ready to defend County Championship title
With all the rain we’ve been having lately, it’s hard to believe the start of the cricket season is just days away.
It promises to be a mouth-watering one with the Ashes, the final of the World Test Championship between India and Australia (to which The Oval will play host in June) and Surrey defending their County Championship crown.
Week one sees the champions travel to Old Trafford, the setting for their only four-day defeat in 2022 – to Lancashire, who appear to have the ingredients needed to push the South Londoners all the way in Division One this summer.
Essex seem light in the batting department, likewise Hampshire, but that’s offset by an eye-catching bowling attack. Meanwhile, Kent, Middlesex and Northants are expected to struggle.
Surrey will continue to be handicapped by international calls. Twenty-three players were fielded last term but, thanks to a relatively injury-free campaign, the absence of Sam Curran, Ben Foakes, Jason Roy and Ollie Pope did not stop the Oval outfit beating off the challenge posed by Hampshire to claim their second championship title in five seasons.
That success was built on players like Will Jacks and Jamie Overton producing with the bat as well as the ball. Indeed, Surrey’s worst first innings total in 2022 was 209, with the next lowest 308.
However, Jacks (thigh) and Overton (stress fracture of the back), along with Tom Curran (back), will start the new season on the physio’s bench. But life was put into perspective recently with the tragic death of fast bowler Matt Dunn’s daughter Florence, who succumbed to Dravet Syndrome, a rare and severe form of epilepsy.
The Indian Premier League gets underway today and runs until the end of May, so quite how much the South Londoners will see of Sam Curran and fast bowler Reece Topley is debatable. Curran junior became the most expensive player ever drafted in an IPL auction when Punjab Kings shelled out £1.95million for the 24-year-old all-rounder’s services in December.
Hashim Amla has hung up his batting pads. Only Rory Burns made more runs for Surrey than the South African in last summer’s County Championship. Burns will most likely drop down to number three to replace Amla, with Dominic Sibley – back at the Oval after six summers at Warwickshire – backfilling Burns at the top of the batting order.
Amla was given until January to mull over a one-year contract extension. But shortly after his retirement was confirmed, the injury to Jamie Overton forced Surrey down the route of using their second overseas option to bring in a proven all-rounder – Australia’s Sean Abbott – to augment the re-signing of West Indies’ Kemar Roach, who took 25 wickets in seven championship appearances for the Oval outfit in 2022.
Jordan Clark and Dan Worrall will complete the first-choice seam attack, but, in terms of spin, it will be interesting to see who deputises for Jacks. Surrey are hardly limited for choice with the likes of Yousef Majid, Dan Moriarty and Amar Virdi knocking on the door.
The South Londoners’ biggest frustration last summer was failing to follow-up nine successive victories in the group phase of the T20 Blast with further silverware.
However, mystery spinner Sunil Narine, who was instrumental in turning Surrey into the team to beat in Twenty20 cricket last term, will be returning as overseas player for this year’s Blast to give fellow West Indian Roach the chance to recharge his batteries mid-season.
The backroom staff, which underwent a number of changes 15 months ago, is as before with Alec Stewart pulling the strings as director of cricket, Gareth Batty as head coach and Jim Troughton and Azhar Mahmood the lead batting and bowling coaches.
Batty had to hit the ground running when Vikram Solanki swapped the Oval for the IPL in January of last year. But his energy and infectious enthusiasm seemed to rub off on every member of the squad and the zest with which Surrey played their cricket in 2022 was constant.
In this summer’s County Championship first innings batting bonus points will now start accruing when a side reaches 250 (instead of 200), with the amount needed to score a maximum five points increasing from 400 to 450.
The intention is to dissuade counties producing pitches that guarantee a low-scoring victory for one side or the other. Time will tell.
Could we see sides rack up 450 in 110 overs? Even in this new era of Bazball, the term given to the no-holds-barred approach to batting England have adopted under manager Brendon ‘Baz’ McCullum, it’s unlikely.
Essex’s Alastair Cook, the former England skipper, says that if counties try to emulate Bazball they risk being bowled out for 150.
Problems with the hand-manufactured Dukes ball last summer has prompted the other major shift.
In the course of most matches in 2022, the ball underwent more changes than the head of Trigger’s broom, so the less responsive factory-made Kookaburra will be trialled in two of the mid-summer rounds of the County Championship.
When the move was announced, Jordan Clark simply wrote on social media: “Bend back”.
Surrey’s women will be looking to put the disappointments of last year behind them, with the South East Stars just missing out on reaching the finals of both the T20 Charlotte Edwards Cup and 50-over Rachael Heyhoe-Flint Trophy.
“We had a really good T20 campaign last year and I was one of the top run-scorers in the country, which was pretty awesome,” says opening batter Aylish Cranstone.
“We were really disappointed with how the T20 campaign finished. We got close, but obviously didn’t play quite well enough. So, we definitely want to get our hands on the silverware we won the year before.
“My 50-over season was a little bit up and down. I didn’t play that much due to injury. But, as a team, it’s just about pushing on a bit and challenging ourselves in terms of can we get to finals days? Can we win some silverware?
“We’ve got an amazing team this year. The girls coming up from the academy have been amazing. The whole squad seems really strong, so we’ve got a great chance.”
THREE PLAYERS WHO WILL BE KEY
Clark was many people’s choice for Surrey player of the season in 2022, with 481 runs at an average of 43.72 and 30 wickets at 35.26 in the County Championship. But that accolade went to Will Jacks, who contributed 648 runs and 17 wickets to Surrey’s title win. Jacks’ thigh injury means Clark’s performances will be pivotal in terms of how they go about retaining the crown.
You will have to wait until the start of the T20 Blast, at the end of May, to see Narine weave his spinner’s web. But if Surrey are to make up for last summer’s disappointing quarter-final exit – at the hands of Yorkshire, by a solitary run – the 34-year-old Trinidadian needs to be their trump card again.
Surrey’s leading championship wicket-taker with 39 victims at 24.15 runs apiece last summer. Worrall, a UK passport holder, swapped South Australia, whom he has represented for 10 seasons, for county cricket a year ago, in a bid to qualify to play for England in 2025.
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