Fans chant Gary Wilson's name

The crowd get behind Gary Wilson

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To hell and back

Stricken by tragedy and written off as no-hopers, Surrey were in a tailspin. Until it all came together like magic

Vithushan Ehantharajah |

In September 2013, Graham Ford alerted Sri Lanka Cricket that he would not be looking to renew his coaching contract. A month later he was officially announced as the new head coach of Surrey County Cricket Club on a three-year deal.

Ford was to leave the political and social minefield that was cricket in Sri Lanka - an entity never far from whispers of corruption, where job security means nothing more than an armed guard at your door, in a country still recovering from civil war. He was heading to a club based at a Test ground located in a city that 80 of the world's billionaires call home. And he was worried. "Worried" and "quite concerned" that he may have made a bad decision.

Surrey too was never far from whispers. Job security never seemed guaranteed. Here was a club that seemed to spend its time either in mourning or caught up in its own civil wars. In between, they played a few games of cricket.

"Anybody I spoke to, from those involved in English cricket to those who had been involved with the club, said the same thing: 'Wow, you've taken on a hell of a challenge there!'

"The common message I was getting was that you don't get togetherness in the Surrey dressing room. Team spirit was supposed to be a massive issue. And London was the reason.

Following Maynard's death, Adam Hollioake wondered if the club was cursed. How else to explain two awful events decimating the county in the span of a decade?

"Because it's a London club, it's hard to get the unity. Everything - the 'good luck' and 'go well' messages - came with a warning."

To balance the barbs, Ford only needed to take a walk around his new place of work. There are two entrances to the Kia Oval. If you turn left from the Hobbs Gate, or right from the Alec Stewart Gate, you enter a concourse that offers a crash course in Surrey history. Individual players are given pride of place on brick pillars that showcase their numbers, from international appearances to domestic averages. There is even a timeline on the wall across the road from Archbishop Tenison's School that documents the county's most illustrious eras.

From winning the first-ever "official" County Championship in 1890, to seven consecutive titles from 1952 to 1958, to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Surrey reasserted their dominance and perfected their strut. A NatWest Pro40 League win came in 1996, a Benson & Hedges Cup win in 1997, but it was from 1999 that the real fun began. There were seven trophies over five seasons - three Championships and the rest limited-overs triumphs, including the inaugural Twenty20 Cup. Adam Hollioake skippered and forged a side in his own image: confrontational sorts who could kill off teams with class or sheer will.

Hollioake was backed up by international class: Alec Stewart, Graham Thorpe and Mark Butcher represented the regular England troupe, while Ian Ward, Alex Tudor, Ian Salisbury, Martin Bicknell and Ali Brown had tastes of the big time. Add Saqlain Mushtaq into that mix and it is no surprise they cleaned up, nor that they were reviled while doing so. The team, though, saw the "Anyone But Surrey" tag as just another trophy.

Since winning Division Two in 2006, Surrey have only won one trophy - the Clydesdale Bank 40 in 2011. Of the 16 players to take part in that successful CB40 campaign, ten were fledgling, precocious types that have you reaching for words like "dynasty". The following year, one of those ten, Tom Maynard, was stopped by police on suspicion of drunken driving and, while attempting to get away, died after being struck by an underground train.

In memoriam: tributes to Tom Maynard at The Oval

In memoriam: tributes to Tom Maynard at The Oval © Getty Images

There would be no dynasty.

Maynard's death came ten years after Surrey lost another young twenty-something prodigy, Ben Hollioake. Two personalities to excite the senses, both playing the game with the freedom of youth and the swagger that is a by-product of unbridled talents. Souls of the dressing room, enlightening the lives of many.

Following Maynard's death, Adam Hollioake wondered if the club was cursed. How else to explain two awful events striking the same county in the span of a decade?

On both occasions, cricket reached out. But it did not take long for fans of other counties to return to their "Anyone But Surrey" setting. Surrey's relegation from Division One in 2013 saw many take joy from the fact that they finished trophy-less despite calling on players like Graeme Smith, Kevin Pietersen, Glenn Maxwell and Hashim Amla.

The Hollioake-era side was resented because they won. This side was resented because people enjoyed laughing at them. The glee spilled over into the 2014 season, when Smith, the man brought in to take the club out of the doldrums, was unable to complete a summer because of injury a second year in a row.

By the middle of the 2014 season, though, Ford had seen enough to allay his original fears. Against Glamorgan at Colwyn Bay, Surrey established a first-innings lead of 357. On the third day, with time to spare but rain mooted before the scheduled close, and on the final day Gary Wilson declared the innings. He was batting on 97.

"The common message I was getting was that you don't get togetherness in the Surrey dressing room" Graham Ford

Ford told Wilson that he was more than welcome to bat on, provided the outfield was still wet, as there was little use in Surrey ruining the new ball. Wilson went out to inspect the field and, convinced it was dry enough, called the innings to a halt.

He had been given the captaincy once Smith was ruled out for the season. A gutsy wicketkeeper and an Ireland stalwart, Wilson is your quintessential cult hero: a nattering presence behind the stumps who only knows to give his all. Still, he had not quite cemented himself as a top first-class player. If for some reason Surrey were to release him, a hundred would equate to an extra pile of bargaining chips when looking for another team. But Wilson put Surrey first.

They went on to bowl Glamorgan out for 398 and get the 42 required before the rain returned at the end of day four.

"When you talk about the good things that happened in 2015," says Ford, "you have to remember it all started last year. And it was because of Wils' leadership. There were other incidents along the way. Guys risking milestones to move the game along. But if someone is prepared to make the sort of sacrifice that he made there, then, well, the team is in a healthy situation. I quite quickly realised: 'Hold on, this is a special group of guys.'"

But Wilson has always known that. He did not need convincing. He is aware of the stigma around his county.

Brains trust: Gareth Batty (left) and Graham Ford

Brains trust: Gareth Batty (left) and Graham Ford © PA Photos

"I suppose it changed to people thinking that as long as our hair and tattoos were looking good, then we don't care what happens on the pitch. But if you look at the core of this group - we've always been hard workers. And behind the scenes, everyone has support. It doesn't matter if you're a superstar in the 1st XI or a second-team player on the fringes."

Arun Harinath, Surrey's 28-year-old top-order barnacle, can vouch for that. He had managed to keep his head above water for eight seasons but he wanted to give more, and with his deal set to expire at the end of 2015, he needed to. Had he been cut adrift at the end of the summer, he would have left the game altogether.

Last year Ford sat him down with batting coach Ali Brown and academy director Gareth Townsend. By committee they coached him, helping him pick up length and wise up to a bowler's tells.

In June, Harinath became the first Surrey player to score two hundreds in the same Championship match since Mark Ramprakash in 2007. Soon after, he was rewarded with a new two-year deal.

Harinath got the opportunity to play that match, against Glamorgan in Guilford, after a horrific incident the day before. Chasing a high ball during a T20 match in Arundel, Rory Burns and Surrey's white-ball overseas pro Moises Henriques collided. Both were knocked unconscious: Henriques broke his jaw, Burns suffered serious cuts to his face. Three ambulances were needed to tend to them on the field.

A gutsy wicketkeeper and an Ireland stalwart, Gary Wilson is your quintessential cult hero: a nattering presence behind the stumps who only knows to give his all

Despite being hospitalised, Burns spoke to Harinath and wished him well, offering a positive update on his own health.

After Ford told the Sri Lankan players that he would be moving on, Kumar Sangakkara took him out for a drink. They chatted, discussed cricket and life, and made promises to stay in touch. Then Ford spotted a window to broach a subject he had been mulling over.

"I'm heading to Surrey," he said. "When you decide to retire from international cricket, I want you there."

Sangakkara thought for a moment, then replied: "Gee, sure - I can't wait. I'll definitely come."

From that point, whenever Sangakkara registered a big score, he would receive a tongue-in-cheek email from Ford, imploring him to save some runs for Surrey. Given Sangakkara scored 1438 runs in Tests alone in 2014, those emails turned into spam. The reply Ford had been seeking arrived at the end of last year.

The young'uns: Arun Harinath (left) and Zafar Ansari walk out to bat against Glamorgan. Harinath made two hundreds in the game

The young'uns: Arun Harinath (left) and Zafar Ansari walk out to bat against Glamorgan. Harinath made two hundreds in the game © PA Photos

"I'm a man of my word and I'm going to be retiring soon. How about it?"

Ford, usually unflappably reserved, beams as he recalls that message. "I did somersaults after reading that, I tell you!"

As ever with Sangakkara, there is the quantifiable - seven hundreds (five Championship, two List A) contributing to a luscious lorryload of runs. And then there is the intangible: the acts of goodwill that warrant filing next to Chuck Norris' ability to kill two stones with one bird. Only, with Sangakkara, a fair few of these are true.

Like, when out for dinner with his team-mates, Sangakkara would make an excuse to go to the bathroom or take a call and return having settled the bill. Or that on the eve of the Royal London Cup final, sensing that the bowlers needed rest, he ran in and bowled seam-up till each remaining batsman was satisfied. Or that, before he left the club for the winter break, he told the Surrey players that if any of them needed to talk about anything over the winter - anything - he was just a phone call away.

Peculiarly, to satisfy a long-held desire to live on a boat, Sangakkara is seriously considering purchasing one, along with docking space at one of London's residential moorings. His team-mates say, "He won't stop talking about it" - such is his obsession.

The Hollioake-era side was resented because they won. This side was resented because people enjoyed laughing at them

What has surprised them the most has been his humility. Spending most of his time on the field at first slip as he did, Sangakkara was wise to quirks or tactics that needed addressing. But he would not say anything straightaway. Instead, he would turn to Wilson behind the stumps:

"Sorry Wils," he would start, "can you suggest this… "

Wilson was consistently dumbfounded. "I'd just be like, 'Me?! You've almost 600 games for Sri Lanka, like. You suggest it!'"

On the last day of the season Sangakkara was awarded his county cap. Afterwards, addressing the dressing room he had been officially inducted into, he spoke of his genuine delight. For those players, to see Sangakkara speak so effusively about the brown cap meant something. At that point they truly knew they were doing something good here.

In January 2012, former Surrey captain Ian Greig led the best cricketers from Brisbane's Anglican Church Grammar School on a tour to South Africa. On the Durban leg his side came up against Hilton College. The game was expected to be a close affair. It was anything but. Hilton stormed it by eight wickets thanks to 6 for 38 from a certain Tom Curran.

Man of the people: Sangakkara is mobbed after a Royal London One-day Cup win against Derbyshire in Guildford

Man of the people: Sangakkara is mobbed after a Royal London One-day Cup win against Derbyshire in Guildford © PA Photos

Two months later Surrey's Pemberton Greenish Academy were on their own tour to South Africa, led by their director Gareth Townsend. Tom's performance in this school match left such an impression that he was invited to Cape Town, where he spent a week training and living with players who would eventually become his team-mates when he came to south London. Originally it was for a month, but after some good performances for the second team Tom was offered a chance to complete his schooling in Wellington College in England.

Ford, when pressed, struggled to recall any youngster who has come close to displaying Tom's temperament. Offered extra thinking time, he still drew a blank. "There's something very, very special there. Boy, he's tough."

Tom's talent is undeniable. When injuries decimated Surrey's pace options, he picked up the slack to lead the attack. He has an unwavering ability to hit an awkward length, whether off a full run-up or two paces. It helps, too, that everything happens around off stump.

Wilson tells of a story from a Championship match in 2014 when Tom, refusing to give up the ball, took a wicket. Faced with a left-hander next, he was keen to show his captain just how fresh he still was.

"Okay, Wils - I'm going to come around the wicket here, swing one away and nick him off to third slip."

Whenever Sangakkara registered a big score for Sri Lanka, he would receive a tongue-in-cheek email from Ford, imploring him to save some runs for Surrey

Wilson laughed: "Mate, if you do that - well, yeah, serious effort." Cue a delivery arcing in then nipping away, catching the outside edge and flying through a vacant fourth slip.

Wilson was gobsmacked: "I was like, geez, this kid knows what he's doing."

Those who knew Tom's father, Kevin, the Zimbabwean allrounder who enjoyed stints at Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire, say the fiery Curran persona burns bright within Tom. When Kevin passed away in 2012, Surrey and Wellington College offered Tom's two younger brothers the chance to complete their education in England. Ben, the second son, moved on from Surrey to play for the MCC Young Cricketers in 2015, while also turning out in the Surrey Championship Premier Division for Weybridge Cricket Club. Then there is the youngest - Sam.

During the summer, a couple of trial games were organised to give the team match practice, and a few academy players were thrown in, including Sam. Ford was aware of the youngest Curran, but according to academy coaches, Sam was a better batsman than a bowler. After watching him bowl to the senior batsmen during pre-season, Ford could not believe his luck.

"When he pitched up to those trial games, he really did look like a 17-year-old. And then when he took the field with the other guys, he bounced around like a 17-year-old." But then he bowled in key stages of those trial games, unlike any 17-year-old Ford had seen. "After that, we knew this boy could do it."

Brothers keepers: Sam (left) and Tom Curran hold aloft the spoils after Surrey took the Division Two title this year

Brothers keepers: Sam (left) and Tom Curran hold aloft the spoils after Surrey took the Division Two title this year © Getty Images

After impressing in the Royal London Cup, Sam became the second youngest player to make his first-class debut for Surrey. He shared the new ball with Tom against Kent in July and took 8 for 120 in the match. Against title rivals Lancashire in September, he took 5 for 67 in the first innings. In the last game of the season against Northants, he registered his maiden fifty.

Not wanting to be outdone, Tom took 7 for 35 in the first innings - his second seven-wicket haul of the season - which, coupled with Sam's 3 for 46, saw them become the first pair of brothers since 1950 to account for all ten wickets in a County Championship match. Against one of their father's former counties no less.

Tom finished 2015 as Division Two's joint leading wicket-taker, with 76. Sam's six-match sabbatical from school work - he'll miss the start of next season to sit his A levels - returned 22 wickets at 26.13, 239 runs at 47.80, and a one-up over Tom by batting higher in the order.

"There's good competition there," beams Ford. "And freakish talents in both of their bodies."

During Surrey's end-of-season dinner, Sangakkara, a fine orator by any figurehead's standards, who has given lectures, speeches and team talks to administrators, politicians and world champions was briefly at a loss for words.

For the players, to see Sangakkara speak so effusively about the brown cap meant something. At that point, they truly knew they were doing something good here

It was at the annual event that sees Surrey legend Pat Pocock close out the night singing Frank Sinatra numbers. Standing on stage as Batsman of the Year - one of three awards out of 11 that didn't find its way into the hands of a Curran - Sangakkara had Tom to his left. After singing his and Sam's praises, Sangakkara looked over at Jade Dernbach.

He talked about his first interactions with Dernbach in international battle. "I didn't know you too well then," began Sangakkara. "But, wow, the work you have done behind the scenes and the way you have mentored these two boys. I just… " He struggled to find the words to do Dernbach justice. Dernbach allowed for a reluctant smile and gave Sangakkara a thumbs-up. Sangakkara reciprocated the gesture.

When Ford says people told him about the Surrey players' poor attitude, you imagine they were talking about Dernbach. Or at least their perception of him. Many see the visceral angst on the field and an international career that has more ignominy than excellence. Dernbach has the worst economy rate for those who have bowled at least 1000 deliveries in ODIs and the joint worst economy rate for those who have sent down at least 500 deliveries in T20 internationals. Factor in the tattooed sleeves and it is a potent cocktail for ire.

"If you were to ask him, he'd be the first to tell you that in the past he hasn't helped himself," says Wilson. "But people see this guy who doesn't have a single hair out of place and shiny tattoos, and think they know him. He's a good fella."

Both Tom and Sam used Dernbach as a mentor this summer - a role he took on with relish and one that many associated with the club believe has mellowed him. Ford is convinced that Tom's ability to lead the line and hold his nerve at the death comes from Dernbach's tutelage, both in the nets and on the field.

Tattoos and tips: Jade Dernbach offers Tom Curran some counsel before the last ball of the one-day semi-final against Nottinghamshire

Tattoos and tips: Jade Dernbach offers Tom Curran some counsel before the last ball of the one-day semi-final against Nottinghamshire © Getty Images

While Dernbach was injured for most of the season, any time he has taken the field with either Curran or both, he stationed himself at mid-on or mid-off. When Sam broke into the first team, Dernbach looked to give him every opportunity to flourish, such as ensuring he would always be running into the wind, aiding his inswinger into the right-handers.

In the Royal London Cup final, as Sam struggled to get going and started to get flustered, Dernbach put an arm around him and got him to look around and take in the occasion. "Enjoy these moments," came the message.

At the beginning of September this year, Gareth Batty took his first career hat-trick against Derbyshire. The first ball popped off a good length, the second spun sharply through bat and pad - the third was an arm ball that saw Surrey return to Division One.

Through the month, people tried putting praise at Batty's door. He swept it away. Just three days on from the last match of the season - a draw that saw Surrey win the division - he was already talking about dropping himself when faced with top-flight greentops next season.

"There will be a couple of northern teams that we go to where there is no way that I can play," he says. "If Zaf [left-arm spinner Zafar Ansari] is fit, I have to step aside. He's the future."

"The bullets should be fired at the old fellas. The young fellas should just be allowed to go about his business" Gareth Batty

This selflessness was one of a number of qualities that allowed Ford to make the "very easy decision" to officially appoint Batty captain, especially when Wilson's Ireland duties meant he wasn't able to commit to a full season. Batty's understanding of county cricket, his passion, energy and man-management skills, Ford says, made handing him the reins to a young, vibrant side, a "no-brainer".

Batty gets Surrey. He knows the value of the brown cap. He knows that some people are born with it in their blood, and those who are not, he wants to stamp it on their forehead. Such has been Batty's influence on the side, it is easy to forget that 2015 was actually his first official year as Surrey captain.

His first stint in charge came in the tragic summer of 2012. Rory Hamilton-Brown could not continue as captain following the death of Maynard, his close friend and flat-mate, and Batty stepped in.

"In that summer, the cricket was secondary," Batty says. "There were fellas in there that were hurting like hell. A lot of the guys had never been around death. When you're young, you're kept away from it. There's no way we could keep anyone away from that - it's horrific."

In Batty's words, there was nothing "Churchillian" about what he did. He did not stand above them and urge them to play on and honour Maynard's memory. He did not go to each individual, soothe their soul and bring them back from the brink. He just made sure they grieved together. That the six hours a day in which cricket was their lives were spent playing cricket. Together. Six hours trying not to think about Tom. Together.

Pietersen: a much-needed presence in the Surrey rooms this summer

Pietersen: a much-needed presence in the Surrey rooms this summer © Getty Images

"We were grieving as friends. Unfortunately we were doing it in the middle of a cricket field."

Had Pietersen not found his way to Surrey that summer, following the falling out with the England team in 2012, the club would have been relegated sooner. "I'll be forever indebted to KP for that because he helped those players and that dressing room grieve."

The affinity with Pietersen began then for the club's players. To cricketers he barely knew, he offered moral and emotional support. The minuscule positive from that summer: Surrey have forged something strong. A natural instinct to protect one another is more evident than ever.

When someone has to miss out, Batty sees it as his responsibility to front up. Same, too, when his side tastes defeat. "The bullets should be fired at the old fellas," he says. "The young fella should just be allowed to go about his business." Batty knows he has had to shield them from worse. He knows he has to do the shit jobs. At this stage of his career, he wants to.

Surrey fans engulfed the players as they received the Division Two trophy and made their way off the field, soaked in champagne

When Sangakkara joined Surrey, Batty sat down to chat with him. Sangakkara was told he would always have the floor: there was no pressure on him to speak, but if ever he noticed something, he did not need to wait his turn, he simply had to speak. People would listen.

Sangakkara took that opportunity when Batty came under fire during a testing run of results. He stood up and backed a man whom he described as the best captain he has played under.

In an empty player's dining room at the Kia Oval, having completed an end-of-season meeting with Surrey's chairman and chief executive, Ford shuffles forward in his chair before turning to his left. Having spent some time formulating answers using the Hobbs Gate as his focusing point, he moves his gaze towards the honours boards that mark 2nd XI, 1st XI and international recognition.

Mid-conversation, he squints hard at the last entries of each. He begins to read them out aloud until he finds himself repeating the same names. Those of Jason Roy, Ansari, Dernbach and Stuart Meaker are on most of the boards. Steven Davies meets them halfway and continues on, before they all stop at the "Test caps" board - the closest to the dining room entrance. Were it not for injury ruling him out of the UAE series, Ansari could have been the first Surrey product since Rikki Clarke's Test debut in 2003 to go across the width of the wall. He still might, and chances are he won't be the last.

Eventually Ford takes his eyes away from the wall. Most of the season he has been in his Surrey tracksuit: a black number from head to toe that gives him quite an imposing look. Here he is dressed in what seem to be his default civvies: jeans, jacket and a well-worn polo shirt - so much so that both points of the collar are starting to curl up.

Happy ending: Batty with the Division Two trophy at the close of the season

Happy ending: Batty with the Division Two trophy at the close of the season © Getty Images

Since 1982, most of Ford's time has been spent in some tracksuit or another. From 1992 he has coached teams across South Africa, England and Sri Lanka. The highs and lows of those experiences allow him to sense junctures when things can go awry. And he remembers one such moment this season when he feared Surrey might crumble.

It was in the aftermath of Surrey's defeat in the Royal London Cup final. Chasing 221 they were coasting at 143 for 2, with over 15 overs left. But a rousing finale from Gloucestershire saw Surrey fold in a heap and fall seven short.

The debrief in the changing room was solemn and honest. Ford, looking around the room at a young side rounding off a near faultless Royal London Cup run with a Lord's capitulation, was worried they might not get the celebratory season finale they deserved. Less than a week later, he looked on from The Oval home dressing room as Surrey fans engulfed the players when they received the Division Two trophy. They then made their way off the field, soaked in champagne, as fans fought one another for selfies and pats on the back.

Even Ford, possessing an almost superhuman ability to hide emotion, cannot suppress a smile as he relives that moment.

Batty gets Surrey. He knows the value of the brown cap. He knows that some people are born with it in their blood, and those who are not, he wants to stamp it on their forehead

"To see the togetherness of the whole squad: boys who have been here through thick and thin, to some of the new signings as well. To see how they wanted their mates to perform well, were prepared to contribute in any way they could. And to come back from that disappointment at Lord's and finish the job off in the Championship. It has been a special feeling."

It is a feeling that Surrey are looking to bottle. Roy, Ansari, Tom and Sam Curran, Burns, Ben Foakes and Matt Dunn have signed new, long-term deals. Mark Footitt, a left-arm seamer from Derbyshire who has pushed himself into England reckoning, has joined the county on a four-year-deal.

"No matter what people told me, this togetherness and desire to help and push each other on…" Ford pauses and looks back at the honours boards. At the names of players written off as tattooed, coiffed prima donnas who endured tragedy, grieved, fought to get stronger and better, together.

"I don't think I've really experienced that anywhere else before."

Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo, the Guardian, All Out Cricket and Yahoo Sport

 

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