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Monday September 19 2011

The cricket County Championship ended on Thursday, and I am now suffering severe withdrawal symptoms, having this year got completely sucked into it.  Surrey, my preferred county (on account of me having been born and raised in it and it having won the County Championship every year from when I was four to when I was ten) got into a promotion battle.  To win promotion to Division One they had (a) to win their last four games, and (b) to get enough bonus points (which you get for batting and bowling well in the first inningses) to get them ahead of the opposition.  Winning one County Championship game is hard.  Winning four is a considerable achievement.  They did win four, which at first looked totally impossible.  They did get just enough bonus points.  And they got promoted.  I tracked all this, with growing fascination and growing admiration, because I wanted to, and because, thanks to the www and local radio, I could.

It was a three horse race, from which two horses would be promoted, between Middlesex, Northants and Surrey, the three of them in that order when the final round of games began, last Monday morning.  If all three won their final games (which they all did) then Middlesex, way out in front, would be Division Two champs, which they were.  The interesting action concerned Northants and Surrey, the former being ahead of the latter by one point when the final round of games began.  Surrey had one more win than Northants, so if Surrey got one more bonus point than Northants in the final games, with both winning, they’d have equal points totals and Surrey would would be promoted.

The other thing you need to know about Division Two of the County Championship is that this year they have been using a kind of cricket ball which has two important properties.  It is very hard to bat against when it is new.  And it is very easy to bat against when it is old.  What this means is that batsmen who can merely survive when the ball is new are at least as valuable as batsmen who can flog it around to all parts when the ball is old.

On Monday morning, Surrey, batting first against Derbyshire, lost two very early wickets, captain Hamilton-Brown, and Ramprakash.  (Ramps has finally, it would seem, run out of puff.  He has had a bad season, for the first time in well over a decade.  But part of his problem is that he bats at number three and frequently goes into bat when that ball they are now using is new.) Things looked very bad.  But Steve Davies (badly dropped early on) and Zander de Bruyn (pronounced de Brain) then batted until lunch, taking the score past 100, in other words they not only survived, they actually flourished.  They both got out soon after lunch, and Tom Maynard then made a century, others also chipping in with important support.  But that very early batting by Davies and de Bruyn was crucial.  Thanks to Surrey batting aggressively, they were 400 for 8 by the end of day one, which got them maximum batting bonus points.  But if it hadn’t been for Davies and de Bruyn on that first morning, they wouldn’t have got anywhere near to 400 (the exact number of runs you have to get to get maximum batting points), because by the time the ball had got old and easy to hit everywhere, the way Maynard did hit it everywhere, Surrey would have been more like 200 all out.  Even if they had then contrived to win the game, their bonus points would not have been sufficient.

Northants, meanwhile, also batted well enough to go on and win their game, but they were all out in their first innings, on the Tuesday morning, for 343.  They also needed to get to 400, given that Surrey already had.  But they didn’t.  Ergo, they lost out on promotion by two points out of 227.

I love that I knew all this (scroll down here for all the rules about how many points you get for what) at the time, and consequently knew exactly what was going on, and why the batting of Davies and de Bruyn was so crucial, even as it was happening.  Cricinfo and BBC Radio London (aka Mark Church) were my two main sources, but in truth Mark Church, busy describing a cricket match, doesn’t always get all the subtleties of things like bonus points exactly right.  For that, you really need to be able to read something.

Mark Church is an amiably rambling old codger on the radio, but an intensely scripted, driven, humourless young professional on Surrey TV.  Odd.  Something to do with doing radio for six hours on end each time, but telly for more like six minutes each time.  Surrey TV’s picture and camera coverage is now appalling, but give it a few years ...

Davies and de Bruyn weren’t the only ones doing vital stuff for Surrey.  I pick them out merely because what they did was not quite as obvious as other other stuff that Surrey also did (or even as obvious as other things that Davies and de Bruyn did), like win four games in a row, which was, as I say, an amazing achievement.  Much more obvious was the contribution of Pragyan Ojha, the Indian spinner that Surrey signed for their last few games.  The thing about him was that he was not only able to bowl well.  He was able to bowl well when the ball was old and when nobody else could bowl well.  So he kept opposing sides down to much lower totals.

In general, Surrey’s bowling just gets better and better, which tells me that their new coach, Adams, is very good at coaching indeed.  Surrey not only triumphed themselves this year.  They also supplied England with two of their best new regular bowlers, Tremlett and Dernbach, supplying England with regular bowlers meaning, basically, saying goodbye to them.  Linley and Meaker, the next two Surrey quick bowlers in the queue, have done very well.  Hence, along with Ojha, all those wins.  You can’t win proper games of cricket without getting people out.

As for Surrey’s batting, I even suspect that Ramps may have done them a favour by not scoring centuries two games out of every three.  That meant the other batters couldn’t say, oh well, Ramps will bat properly, we don’t have to.  They had to.  They did.

Talking of proper cricket, two days after getting promoted, Surrey also won themselves an improper cricket title, the forty overs each way slog final against Somerset having been at Lord’s on Saturday.  Ojha didn’t play, but Surrey did play numerous other spinners, who tied Somerset into all kinds of knots.  In slogfests, the slower it comes at you, the less it just bounces off your bat to the boundary.  You have to really hit slow deliveries, and that can get you out.  Surrey made a bit of a meal of slogging off the runs, and rain complicated things, but they never really looked like not winning.

So, Surrey promoted.  Surrey win a cup competition. The other London county also promoted.

Plus, England beat India 8-0.  4-0 in the tests, once in the twenty over slog, and 3-0 in the fifty over slog series.  Surrey have a bowling line-up India could only dream of.  (Why Odja didn’t do any bowling for India this summer is very mysterious to a Surrey fan like me, although I presume English 2nd Div batters are far worse at playing spin than sub-continentals in test matches, so they didn’t realise how good he’d be until he proved it for Surrey, too late.)

Cricket lovely cricket.

Actually, the funniest single thing in the entire cricket season was the extraordinary public attack launched by the Chairman of Yorkshire CC on his own players, Yorkshire having this year been relegated to Division Two.  (So Surrey won’t play Yorkshire next season either.) In the same season that Lancashire won the Championship, which won’t have improved his mood any.  (No more Roses matches in the Championship.) Usually when sportsmen do badly these days, those in charge of them are impeccably polite about them in public, taking “full responsibility” for their own errors, blah blah, and keeping any complaints about their underlings strictly private.  Look at Indian captain Dhoni’s relentless public politeness, every time he was interviewed after yet another Indian debacle.  But t’ Yorkshire Chairman went ballistic.