(Photo: Getty Images)
By Alex Morrow
HIS Surrey teammates describe Stuart Meaker as a phoenix risen from the ashes and the man himself feels his bowling is close to returning to its best.
Renowned as one of the fastest bowlers in the English game, the 29-year-old first pulled on a Surrey shirt a decade ago and won two England ODI caps in 2011 before injury problems started to hit.
At his peak in 2011 and 2012, Meaker twice picked up 44 Championship wickets at an average of 22.56 and the Surrey paceman does not feel far off reaching those heights again.
He said: “I wouldn’t say I’m at my best right now, but skill-wise I’ve gone back to that stage and found out a little of what I did in 2011 and 2012.
“When I start marrying that with rhythm and pace, watch out.
“I’m feeling strong, I’m feeling fit, so the pace is always there, I’ve just got to add to that a little more skill and direction.”
Despite those two glorious summers, in 2013, Meaker underwent knee and shoulder surgery in the space of a month and the road to recovery was long.
Struggling for game time, he went into the last year of his contract in 2016 with some uncertainty, but came through that make or break season with a new deal.
Meaker said: “They told me to just bowl fast and hit people on the head, and it really took the pressure off. Some guys round here call me the phoenix because I rose from the ashes.
“I do love it, it sits well with me that since then I’ve had a real rejuvenation and fallen back in love with the game.”
A strong advocate of the ECB National Performance Centre in Loughborough, the Surrey quick has benefitted from Kevin Shine’s expertise to increase his pace and improve his skills.
The sports science approach is not for everyone, but for Meaker, who describes himself as a “grunty, muscle-bound bowler”, squeezing every ounce of performance out of his body is crucial.
He feels that all the work he has done, from intense S&C training to sports psychology and lifestyle management keeps him in with a chance of returning to the England set-up.
“I’m not out of it by any means – I can still bowl a decent ball at a decent pace and I still harbour ambitions to play at the highest level.
“I will always have that, it’s just in my nature,” he said. “I don’t think you could name many players who don’t hold Test cricket in very high regard. It’s still equal between bat and ball and it’s the age-old purist format and I’ve always loved that.”
If Meaker is to return to the international scene, though, he will first have to negotiate the challenge of winning a spot in the Surrey side.
With Matt Dunn, Mathew Pillans and youngster Gus Atkinson all jostling for places, Surrey also recruited South African great Morne Morkel, so opportunities are far from guaranteed.
Meaker did not play Surrey’s opening County Championship game against Hampshire when Jade Dernbach and Sam Curran were entrusted to share the new ball.
But Meaker insists he just needs one chance to make an impact on the Surrey selectors.
He said: “It’s going to be a good year from a bowling point of view, there’s going to be a lot of competition for places, and we’ve got just a little bit more edge with Morne here.
“Cricket is the kind of game where if you have one good season and time it right in front of the right people, they say ‘this guy’s not far off’.”
Meanwhile, young spinner Amar Virdi says playing alongside a number of experienced campaigners at Surrey has helped him adapt to first-class cricket.
The 19-year-old played a crucial role in Surrey’s opening Championship victory over Hampshire last week and thanked his elder statesmen for helping make the transition so easy. He said: “It’s a great mix. Growing up, playing with Surrey from the age of 12, I’ve seen these players in the first team. We have so much experience to draw from. We have Rikki [Clarke], Jade [Dernbach], Gareth Batty who have long been in the Surrey team.
“There’s so much I can learn as a young player and it almost gives us a head start with how much knowledge is in that dressing room.”