Wednesday 3 April 2019 7:44 pm

Defending champions Surrey embracing the role of frontrunners as County Championship returns

Surrey may have broken their 16-year duck to win the County Championship Division One trophy last season, but they are not content to stay stuck on title No19.

The club hierarchy know all too well they’ve underachieved. Now, with the monkey off their back, the goal is to establish a dynasty capable of monopolising county cricket, which returns on Friday.

They will not rest on their laurels. With rivals having strengthened amid the context of four different title-winners in the last four seasons, they know it won’t be easy.

Read more: Chris Tremlett: Surrey's depth makes them my County Championship favourites

“The message we’ve given the boys is that if we’re as good as last year then that’s OK but we’ve got to be better than last year,” says director of cricket Alec Stewart. “We’ve been the hunters and we’re now the hunted. Everyone is trying to catch us up. Through hard work and trying to improve we’re trying to keep that gap.”

One way they’ve gone about achieving that goal is to poach key players from their rivals. England white-ball bowler Liam Plunkett was signed from Yorkshire, while all-rounder Jordan Clark was lured from Lancashire.

The pair add depth to the bowling ranks, meaning potential injuries are covered. Stewart and head coach Michael Di Venuto might even have the rare luxury of resting and rotating players.

Surrey v Essex - Specsavers County Championship: Division One
Captain Rory Burns made more runs than any other player in Division One last year (Source: Getty)

But having spent the 2018 campaign chasing down previous champions Essex, Surrey know this season will feel different.

“It’s a new team for me, but I’m lucky enough to have won the title four times, so I’ve known people coming after you,” says Plunkett. “I’m used to teams coming for blood.”

“It’s similar with Essex last year – when you played them you knew they were champions and a great team so you try and up your game because you know you’re in a big contest,” adds wicket-keeper Ben Foakes.

“Everyone is coming for you because they want to take what you’ve got. From an internal point of view it’s doing the same sort of thing, not failing into the emotional side.”

Squad environment

Spending a morning in the Surrey camp, the feeling of unity, excitement and confidence is clear. The harmonious atmosphere comes from success, but also from leadership.

Stewart believes Di Venuto has gone under the radar, crediting the Australian with instilling a positivity which allows young and old, inexperienced and experienced to mix and get the best out of each other.

“It’s about the environment that we’ve created here,” Di Veunto explains. “We’ve got some excellent senior players and role models here. Everyone is here to improve.”

Surrey CCC Photocall
Ollie Pope (right) enjoyed a breakthrough season last year (Source: Getty)

It’s this cornerstone which allows so many young players to make the step up from the academy to the first team. Di Venuto used 21 players in the Championship last season, with Ollie Pope, Amar Virdi and Ryan Patel following the Curran brothers, Sam and Tom, in making the transition.

With so many players on the fringes of the England set-up in all three formats, it’s likely more will emerge this campaign, with batsmen Will Jacks and Jamie Smith the next cabs off the rank.

“If they keep working hard then the world’s their oyster,” says batsman Jason Roy. “We’ve seen players come through and have breakthrough years, like Ollie Pope last year. There’s no reason why either of them can’t do the same – they’re special young players who with the right kind of channeling can be world beaters.”

Being a frontrunner rather than a chaser requires a different skill set. But on the eve of the county season, there’s every indication that Surrey have what it takes.