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WHY DON’T ENGLAND LIKE SURREY PLAYERS?

Written by Rhys Benjamin

If you’re a county cricket fan, particularly of Somerset, then you’ll probably look at that title and think I’m mad. “Surely Steven Davies and James Hildreth have had it worse!?” I hear you screech. I’ll admit it: saying England hate Surrey players looks ridiculous without context or explanations. But I believe, very firmly, it is better to not be picked at all than to be treated like this lot have been.

The 2013-14 Ashes marked a “great reset” for the England Test team. Of the 18 England players that played in that series, 7 never played Test Cricket again (Carberry, Pietersen, Swann, Tremlett, Bresnan, Panesar, Borthwick), one moved to Ireland (Rankin), and a further two players would only play 5 more Tests between them (Trott, Prior). The following summer, under Peter Moores, who was every bit as terrible as he was in his first stint in charge, the top three run scorers on that series were all dropped for the first Test. Since (and including) that 2013-14 series, 11 Surrey players have played Test Cricket for England and, at the time of writing, none of them have nailed down a spot permanently.

But I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking “what on earth are you on about, they haven’t played well enough [or] they’ve got everything they deserved and nothing more…”

Allow me to explain.

ASHES CASULATIES

Kevin Pietersen batting for Surrey in the T20 Blast (Sporting Life)

First, there was Kevin Pietersen. Too many column inches have been written about his sacking from the England team and I won’t go through all that again. But what England did 12 months after that was cruel. It is better to have a door firmly closed than to have it ajar, and Colin Graves’s instruction to Pietersen at the start of 2015 gave Pietersen false hope. It sounded simple enough: withdraw from the IPL, go back to Surrey, score runs in the County Championship, and get your name back in the frame. So that’s precisely what he did. He scored 170 against Oxford MCCU in the traditional University pre-season friendly – but it was “only” Oxford, I hear you say – fine. He then followed that up with scores of 19, 53*, 32, 8*, 355*, and 2, before the door was slammed on his career for good. That’s 639 runs at an average of 159.75. Even if you take out the Oxford game, that gives him 469 runs at an average of 156.33. “Oh, but there were off-field issues”, I hear you cry – not with Surrey in 2015 there weren’t. Captain Gareth Batty, Coach Graham Ford, and Director of Cricket Alec Stewart can’t speak highly enough of him. The only mitigating circumstance was England’s settled middle order at that time, but three months later Gary Ballance would find himself dropped, and, er, Jonny Bairstow was picked. To rub salt into the wound, Pietersen was offered a somewhat insulting “advisory One Day role” instead, which he declined.

Then Chris Tremlett retired. For a few years he had been fighting with the likes of Tim Bresnan and Steven Finn for the third seamer role that England had not really filled since Andrew Flintoff, and following the 2013-14 Ashes he was overlooked in favour of, er, Chris Jordan and Liam Plunkett. Answers on a postcard please. This one, I admit, is a little bit far-fetched, but given Trott, Prior, and Steven Finn managed to find their way back in, one wonders if Tremlett would have done had he been playing for another county.

SPIN DOCTORS

After that 2013-14 series, a lack of spin options available meant that England opted to throw Moeen Ali in at the deep end, and even today the jury is still out on Ali. But even being generous to England, Gareth Batty was told he would be recalled as the second-choice spinner for the 2015 tour of the West Indies. And he wasn’t. “OK, that’s fine”, I hear you say, “there must have been a better option for them to do that”. Enter James Tredwell, which became even sillier after Ali got injured. Let me say that again: James Tredwell was picked over Gareth Batty for a Test Match, even after Batty was told it would be him. In late 2016 England finally handed a recall to Batty, which was already at least 18 months overdue – and arguably 2.5 years overdue. That was for England’s mammoth 7-test tour of Bangladesh and India. At Chittagong – the only game England won on that tour – Batty was quietly impressive, running through the Bangladesh middle order on the fourth evening to take four wickets in the match.

Zafar Ansar in the County Championship for Surrey (Daily Express)

Then comes the bit that turns things into a farce. Batty was then rested for the second Test at Dhaka, in order to keep the 39-year-old fresh and fit against India, with Zafar Ansari rotated in. Ansari, who was already questioning his future in the game, was plagued by injuries throughout the previous year and was off the pace in Dhaka – literally, bowling around 10kph slower than he would do normally. England, thanks to some terrible backroom overthinking (it’s better to have the ball turning away, apparently, even if that means picking a worse bowler), retained him ahead of Batty for Rajkot. A combination of terrible captaincy from Alastair Cook and a back injury meant that Ansari only bowled 43 overs in Rajkot and Visag, whereas Ali and Rashid bowled 183.

Batty was then brought back in for the third Test on a pitch that didn’t need three spinners. Alastair Cook forgot he existed, and Batty only came on in the 47th over with the score 122-2. Batty was economical, but only bowled 19.2 overs in the match, whereas Adil Rashid bowled more than double that. After making the opposite mistake in Mumbai (picking two spinners on a pitch that demanded three), Cook was widely panned in the media for saying, effectively, that Batty wasn’t good enough, when he had been more than good enough in Chittagong and hadn’t had a fair chance since. After England flew out Liam Dawson for the final Test instead of playing Batty (there’s a wonderful picture of Batty looking decidedly grumpy whilst Dawson is getting his cap), India whacked 753-7. Oops. Neither Batty nor Ansari ever played Test Cricket again.

FLASHES IN THE PAN

Tom Curran representing England in New Zealand (cricketnews.com)

Then there was Tom Curran. Yeah, you forgot he played Test Cricket, didn’t you? A spate of injuries in the 2017-18 Ashes series forced England to try anybody they could find, and with England leaving out Liam Plunkett for some reason, Tom Curran was the logical next cab off the rank, even if he was the 9th choice seamer. Unfortunately, he’s most famous for bowling a no ball to David Warner that resulted in a wicket on Boxing Day. The fact he got Steve Smith out – admittedly off a wide long hop – is almost forgotten about. The wicket was hopelessly flat (it was rated poor by the ICC) and 1-118 was a better return than it looks. 1-82 in a drubbing at Sydney followed: such was the drubbing that, again, his figures held up well compared to Broad (1-121), Crane (1-193), and Ali (2-170). The fact he has not played a Test since is understandable. The fact he has never even been in a Test squad since? That is poor.

Mark Stoneman opening the batting for England (England and Wales Cricket Board)

And at the same time, there was Mark Stoneman. Evoking bad memories of the late 1980s and 1990s, a decent 2017 season for Surrey (probably slightly inflated by some flat Oval wickets) led him to being Alastair Cook’s 15th opening Test partner. As with all of Cook’s partners, he started OK, with 8, 19, 52, 1, and 40* against the West Indies, but Josh Hazlewood bowled brilliantly at him and a series of diminishing returns in the Ashes (53, 27, 18, 36, 56, 3, 15, 24, 0) left his place in jeopardy. It picked up a bit on a tour of New Zealand (11, 55, 35, 60), enough to give him a go in the 2018 summer. 4 and 9 in a losing cause against Pakistan at Lord’s was not to worry, he’d surely make 100 in the next Test, right? Ah. New England selector Ed Smith had opted to jettison him after just one match as selector, which was harsh and something England haven’t really done before or since… unless you play for Surrey. The fact that England went back to Keaton Jennings, rather than the next cab off the rank (Rory Burns), is even stranger. It is rumoured, although unconfirmed, that he was humiliatingly forced to travel to Lord’s alone to remove his kit from the dressing room.

SURREY’S NEW GENERATION

Surrey’s 2018 Championship-winning season forced a spate of strange, 1990s-esque selections. The first of which was Sam Curran. Tasked with replacing Ben Stokes in the England team (easy, right?), Curran was picked off the back of 10-101 against Yorkshire that included the wickets of Pujara (twice) and Joe Root. His left-arm angle has been something England have underused, and the narrative that developed after the 2017-18 Ashes of “we need a pace bowler” means he is often left out at the expense of quicker but worse bowlers, and rots on the bench. Despite being Man of the Match in the first Test against India at Edgbaston in 2018, he was then strangely dropped for the third Test. Which England lost. Happily, he bounced back, and was named Man of the Series. But the problem is that England have no idea what to do with Curran. After spending most of the 2019 summer drinks-carrying with, bizarrely, Craig Overton picked ahead of him at one stage (yeah, me neither), he was England’s leading wicket taker on their tour of New Zealand, but was then dropped for the very next Test. Rotting on the bench again in 2020, he continues to be given the hokey-cokey treatment, despite always performing well when he is picked.

Ollie Pope batting for England (The Times)

Then Ollie Pope got picked. Way too early and in the wrong place in the order. Despite this, he impressed on his debut at Lord’s, with 28 in a low scoring game. After scoring 10 and 16 in a losing cause at Trent Bridge, for the next Test he… oh. He was dropped. After just three innings. Who replaced him? Moeen Ali. Of all people. Ali batted in the #3 spot for the first Test of the tour of Sri Lanka, where he got a first ball duck and 3. Oops. Then, rather than go back to Pope, England put Joe Denly in that open place in the side. It took over a year for Ollie Pope to force his way back into the side whilst he watched the likes of Denly, Roy, Bairstow, Buttler, and Jennings all fail catastrophically. But more on Roy later…

Ben Foakes celebrates his maiden ton in Sri Lanka (BBC Sport)

Ben Foakes was called up after an injury to Jonny Bairstow. And boy, did he not disappoint. He scored a magical 107 on debut after England had collapsed to 103-5. His wicket keeping was also extraordinary and was named Man of the Series in his first series. Like Sam Curran, in fact. But a public temper tantrum from Jonny Bairstow, moaning that he wanted to keep and bat at #7, resulted in Foakes being dropped unceremoniously, having not done anything wrong whatsoever. Then, following Bairstow’s dreadful returns over the 2019 summer, Foakes would surely come back into the side, right…? Wrong. Jos Buttler was handed the gloves instead. Foakes would not get another chance for two full years after he was dropped, and like Pope, had to sit and watch as others were given chance after chance after chance and failed. Foakes is good enough to play as an out-and-out batsman, but as the better gloveman this is somewhat working against him as it would mean taking the gloves off Jos Buttler. The problem with the Buttler/Foakes debate is that it’s all based on “potential” and false narratives. The theory goes that Foakes is the better keeper than Buttler (true) but that Buttler is the better batsman. Hang on a minute, Foakes averages more than Buttler in both Tests and First Class? And Buttler has just 2 Test 100s in 50 Tests? Oh. Right. Well, Buttler is the more “destructive” batsman, right? Buttler scores at less than 4 per over in Tests and First Class cricket (Foakes’s strike rate is only slightly lower) and even Matt Prior scored quicker than him. There’s no statistical justification for Buttler over Foakes at all, and having played 50 Tests you can no longer rely on Buttler’s “potential”. The horrible run of form that Bairstow and Buttler went on with the gloves throughout 2019 and 2020, whilst at the same time Foakes was hammering down the door, is perhaps indicative of an anti-Surrey bias. Had Foakes still been playing for Essex, I have no doubt he would have been picked quicker. Prior to the 2021 India series, only Ollie Pope averages more than Ben Foakes as keeper since Foakes made his debut.

Rory Burns hitting his maiden test hundred at Edgbaston (Daily Express)

But for a while, it looked like Rory Burns had cracked the code. After being overlooked for selection for years, he was finally picked after Cook’s retirement in 2018. Such is the silliness of the Stoneman selection, many Surrey fans would have picked Burns ahead of Stoneman, having proven himself for a number of years rather than one spectacular year (see also: Duckett, Hameed, Jennings…). After quietly impressing, although without a 100 to show for it, in the 2018-19 winter, a poor performance against Ireland led to a media campaign calling for him to be dropped. Nasser Hussain famously stated the first Ashes test of 2019 should line up with “opener A” and “opener B” in the top two positions. A week later, Burns had made a gritty century against the best bowling attack in the world. A further century followed in New Zealand and after 84 in a losing cause at Centurion, it seemed he would be inked in for years to come. But a freak footballing injury left him out for several months – made even longer by the Covid-19 outbreak. Since then he has not had the scores to show for it, but this is only part of the story. Unlike many England openers in recent years he has received more than his fair share of unplayable deliveries, and whilst he does have a weakness to off spin (which Roston Chase and Ravichandran Ashwin have exploited effectively), his numbers don’t necessarily justify his talent. Test openers everywhere are finding it difficult in this current era and only Tom Latham has scored more runs as an opener since Burns’s debut. Hence, to drop him for the third Test in India was very, very harsh, especially having just come back into the side from paternity leave, and his effective replacement, Jonny Bairstow, could only muster a pair. And then Bairstow got picked again. Work that one out. This doesn’t make sense on multiple levels, not least what it’s doing to the career of Zak Crawley, who is unquestionably England’s best #3 and should be inked in there and not jumbled around – after all, Stokes and Root are not moved around the order any more as they were under Trevor Bayliss. If you’re desperate to drop Burns, you should be looking for a like-for-like replacement, whether that’s Denly, Jennings, or someone else. Oh wait, Bairstow plays for Yorkshire. Now it makes sense.

THE WORST ROY-FUL SELECTION

Jason Roy losing his wicket in the 2019 Ashes (The Sun)

I’m guessing Ed Smith doesn’t watch a lot of international cricket not involving England. I say this, because if he had done, he would have known full well that trying Jason Roy as an opener simply did not work. Jason Roy is a wonderful middle order First Class player for Surrey. He can blunt the old ball into the Harleyford Road. He is like a Poundland Kevin Pietersen – a wonderful player with some inventive shots but often plays bad shots as well. As Surrey fans well know, his T20 partnership with Aaron Finch between 2016 and 2019 was wonderful to watch, and in my view was one of the best T20 opening partnerships in the history of the world. So when Aaron Finch was tried out of position as an opener in the 2018-19 Australian summer (you know, the year where they didn’t have Smith or Warner), he was rather poor and was quickly jettisoned. Stupidly, Ed Smith opted to try the same thing with Jason Roy. Whilst Roy and Finch could probably have succeeded in the middle order, any Surrey fan would have told you that Roy at #2 was never going to work. Michael Di Venuto, Surrey Head Coach, even told Surrey members that much. The numbers are damning. In 5 Tests, Roy played 7 innings as an opener and 3 not as an opener. As an opener he scored 6 scores (out of 7) of 10 or less. When not an opener, he scored 72, 22, and 31. For his final Test, he was put into his correct position at #4, and those scores of 22 and 31 indicated that, with a non-opening average of 41.67, England might have just stumbled on a decent middle order bats– oh. He’s been dropped. After just one game in his proper place. And now he’s unlikely to ever play Test Cricket again.

So… now do you believe me? Not one of these players has been treated properly by England. When there’s so many circumstantial pieces of evidence like this, it’s not infeasible to suggest this may have been deliberate. I’m not saying it *is* deliberate, but just remember how many chances, and failures, non-Surrey players (Bairstow, Buttler, Denly, Jennings, Ali, etc.) have got in comparison. Just remember that. And then think, and ask yourself this:

Why don’t England like Surrey players?