In all my 24 seasons as a professional cricketer I don’t think I have ever seen a county team like the one we’ve had at Surrey this season.
We are a big club, with big expectations, but never before in my own experience has a first-class team taken to the field with so many young and – let’s be frank – unknown players in their ranks.
With Usman Afzaal out of the team due to form, with Andre Nel injured and with Michael Brown unfortunately unable to shake off a chronic arm injury which now needs an operation and has cost him a whole season, the current Surrey team is incredibly inexperienced.
Of course, a number of players were deliberately moved on last year as part of Chris Adams’s strategy to revitalise Surrey, and in many areas – especially in terms of our one-day cricket – there have been real signs of progress this summer.
At the time of writing, however, in the current County Championship match at Leicestershire, I have found myself playing in the most inexperienced and youthful team I have ever been a part of. Only Gareth Batty, Chris Tremlett and myself could be described as senior players, although Steven Davies is an exceptional young player who has already attracted the interest of the England selectors.
Tremlett, in particular, has bowled magnificently this season and, when Nel was fit, we were really looking like we had a bowling unit to take us forward with Batty’s off-spin and the youthful pace of both Jade Dernbach and Stuart Meaker to add to the mix.
Our young batsmen prepare very well and very thoroughly for the challenge of trying to make their way as professionals, but it is very difficult for them. A lot of them have yet to play 15 first-class matches, and yet they are being thrown in to a team with only myself and Steve Davies as what you would call established batsmen at this level. The number of first-class hundreds in the team – apart from myself, of course – illustrate the level of inexperience.
When I came into the Middlesex team as a young player I was batted down at number six. I had established Test batsmen, and great players, coming in above me, and I was able to make my mistakes and learn from them with the comforting knowledge that others were there to make the big scores when they were needed and to win matches. In other words, I was allowed time to grow even in a hard school like the Middlesex dressing room of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Now, I find myself in a Surrey team with hardly another capped player around me and for someone like me – someone who believes, in cricket, that experience is very important – that is a big challenge for me to embrace.
But I am also welcoming the added responsibility and it was nice for me not only to score 179 on the first day of this current game at Leicester, my 113th first-class hundred, but also to see Gary Wilson put together a top-class and very mature century at the other end as we built a big first innings total.
I am trying my very best to provide the leadership on the field – and also, if asked, off the field with advice and help – that Surrey needs from me, but I will also be honest and say that I have always enjoyed winning. I was hoping that we would be challenging for promotion from Division Two of the Championship this season and not still scrapping it out near the bottom.
As I write, though, we are still in with a shout of qualification for the Clydesdale Bank 40 semi-finals and I think that is because a lot of our younger players are naturally far more comfortable at the moment in one-day cricket.
In the longer game, you need to piece together an innings and you need to know when to attack and when to defend, when to absorb pressure as a batsman, and how to build an innings with all its ebbs and flows. You need to learn to hit in the ‘V’, especially early on, and the value of playing the ball late.
Again, in my own early days, I was helped enormously by the example of players like Mike Gatting and Desmond Haynes. Everyone at Middlesex used to talk cricket in the evenings, and I’d hang on every word they said about how to play different bowlers in different conditions.
If I can finish with a footballing analogy, I found myself driving home from watching Arsenal beat Blackpool 6-0 last weekend and listening on the car radio to the start of the Wigan v Chelsea game, in which the commentator was full of praise for the way Wigan started. They were giving Chelsea a lot to think about early on.
Well, the final result there was also 6-0 – to Chelsea. Like an old experienced batsman, they had weathered the storm early on and then had been totally ruthless in asserting their authority later in the game.
Arsenal, of course, are a very young team and – against the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United in recent seasons – they have struggled badly. Like a young batsman, they had found it so much easier to flourish against a lesser light like Blackpool.