Alec Stewart has seen a lot of players come through the ranks at Surrey.
While he witnessed it first hand as a player, between the years of 1981 and 2003, it is since February 2014 that he has taken a particular interest.
Having been appointed director of cricket five years ago, Stewart has set about implementing a long-term plan which aims to make Surrey self-sufficient. The money that attracts the biggest overseas stars and helps to lure rivals’ best players remains, but more than ever it is homegrown talent which is shining through at The Oval.
Stewart, a passionate Chelsea fan, has taken a leaf out of Sir Alex Ferguson’s philosophy in trying to nurture Surrey’s very own Class of ‘92. The results have been there for all to see: a first County Championship title for 16 years last season, providing six of the last 11 England Test debutants and a conveyor belt of youngsters which is showing no signs of slowing down.
Sam Curran’s breakthrough summer with England and £800,000 payday at the Indian Premier League this year makes him the poster boy, but the 20-year-old is far from the only one.
His older brother Tom, 24, is in England’s squad for next month’s World Cup due to his skill with the white ball; Ollie Pope, 21, earned a Test debut last year through his stylish batting; Amar Virdi, 20, is a hugely promising off-spinner whose wickets were crucial to last season’s triumph.
The cricket season is still young, but so far it seems that now could be the time for Ryan Patel, 21, and Will Jacks, 20, to lift off.
Although Patel had played 14 first-class games prior to this season, it was his back-to-back hundreds against Durham University and Essex earlier this month which confirmed his prodigious talent.
Batting at No3 in Surrey’s Championship opener against Essex due to an injury to Scott Borthwick, the left-hander grabbed his chance by scoring 100 not out from 278 balls. It was an innings which belied his age and confirmed Stewart’s belief that Patel is a classy batsman first, handy seam bowler second.
“I know he took 6-5 against Somerset at Guildford [last summer] but his first skill is batting,” Stewart tells City A.M. “We want him to have that bowling talent as well, which he has.
“To get your first first-class hundred means so much and it just breeds confidence. You’ve got to bat time. A lot of players come in now and look to hit the ball from ball one, but he respects the good balls, puts away the bad ones and is prepared to do the hard work.
“He can bat anywhere from No1 to No7 for us: he’s batted one to seven in his short first-class career and it’s good to have. We want healthy competition for places.”
Alongside academy director Gareth Townsend, Stewart has been instrumental in ensuring young players develop with the right technique, mentality and attitude – regardless of their style.
And if Patel is cut from old-school cloth, Jacks is most definitely reflective of the modern era, with his remarkable and brutal 29-ball 105 – which contained six sixes in an over – in a pre-season Twenty10 match against Lancashire marking him out as a rising star.
Stewart is keen to just let him play his natural game and, after innings of 88 and 54 against Essex in the Championship and 56 in a One-Day Cup defeat by Sussex, the approach appears to be bearing fruit.
“All we want our players to do is make progress,” he says. “We just want him to get better. He’s maturing as a cricketer all the time.
“We don’t put them under pressure, we just want them to progress and with progress anything can happen.
“To be a modern player you’ve got to be adaptable, to go from skill set to skill set. Jason Roy and Will Jacks – they’re fine strikers of the ball but they can also defend the ball as well. It’s exciting.”
Places up for grabs
With the One-Day Cup now taking centre-stage until 14 May, when Surrey take on early Championship pace-setters Somerset, Jacks will have plenty more opportunities to show off his full repertoire of shots.
He won’t be the only one given chances to impress either. With Roy, Tom Curran and Liam Plunkett joining up with England soon, more places are up for grabs.
Jamie Smith, an 18-year-old batsman who hit 127 against the MCC on his first-class debut last month, is one Stewart is particularly excited about.
“Obviously you’re losing your best players, but the way we treat it is as a chance for others to show what they can do, develop their skills,” he explains.
“We try to give our youngsters an opportunity, which we’ve done for a series of time now because we want them to come through the Surrey system. And if all that works then it’s good for Surrey and potentially good for England.”
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