(Photo: Getty Images)
By Roderick Easdale
SURREY coach Michael Di Venuto reckons high-profile new signing Virat Kohli could play the same role in the culture and development of the young Surrey team as the great Kumar Sangakkara did at The Oval.
“It will be no different from having Sanga here for the previous three years,” Di Venuto claims. “Sanga was virtually the coach on the field teaching people how to bat – for instance on a day-four wicket when it was spinning you’d often see Sanga come down and help the batter out – but that’s what you expect from your senior players. I expect the same from someone of the class of Virat Kohli.”
Sri Lankan Sangakarra scored almost 1,500 runs in the last of his three County Championship seasons at Surrey last year, at an average of 106.50.
“I have never known someone make such an impression on such a big club as Sanga has in terms of what he had done for us and put down through our ranks,” said then captain Gareth Batty.
“Virat’s a one-day genius,” enthuses Di Venuto, “and we are lucky to have his knowledge around the dressing room for championship and one-day cricket. Even if he doesn’t say boo, people watching him go about his work are going to learn and improve off that. Since the signing was announced the youngsters have been so excited to be sharing a dressing room with him.”
Surrey, not so long ago derided in some quarters for an over- reliance on a perceived moneybags approach of signing up other teams’ players, have moved towards a model involving blending youngsters who have come through their academy alongside a world-class overseas player – at present world-ranked number eight Dean Elgar. Surrey’s most recent championship side included two 19-year-olds and three aged 23.
One of those youngsters is 20-year old Ollie Pope who speaks highly of the influence Sangakarra has played in his nascent career: “Batting with him is something I will never forget. He kept you on your toes, and in my case stressed that I should not worry about the gaps in the field so much as the runs will come if I stay in.” But then Pope grins that Virat Kohli is ‘not a bad bloke to learn off either!’.
Surrey’s director of cricket Alec Stewart agrees. “Playing and training alongside Virat will be a massive benefit for our players who will have the opportunity to learn so much from him,” he said.
The process of getting Kohli to Surrey began a year and a half ago, when Stewart picked up on Kohli’s comments during the Indian tour of England about his ambition one day to play county cricket, and made contact.
The Surrey contract is all about Kohli’s desire to improve his technique in English conditions in advance of this summer’s Test series – in his five Tests here he has a top score of 39 and an average of 13. Word out of the BCCI is that Surrey are doing little more than reimbursing Kohli’s travel and accommodation costs, with only a nominal salary being paid.
The Indian captain will play for Surrey starting with Royal London Cup group games in June at Beckenham, Lord’s and a day-nighter at The Kia Oval. This is followed by championship matches at Southampton, Guildford and Scarborough, with the potential of more 50-over involvement if Surrey qualify for the knockout stages. His Surrey stint thus involves games at three of the five venues for the forthcoming Test series, although of these only at the Ageas Bowl will he play red-ball cricket and against the Dukes ball.
When the ECB is criticised for limiting their own contracted players’ involvement in county cricket, the BCCI is pulling Kohli out of a Test match – Afghanistan’s debut one – so that he can participate in county cricket.
Further potential irony comes from one of the alleged attractions of the new hundred-ball competition being that it will make it easier to attract the top players to play English domestic cricket. But of the top-13 ranked Test batsmen in the world, if you exclude the two banned Australians and Azhar Ali, who is playing against English counties for the touring Pakistanis, of the remaining ten, eight are playing championship cricket this season.
The ‘Hundred’ will do well to replicate that high level of recruitment especially with the BCCI historically unwilling to release their players to play in any rival of the IPL. However, the BBCI have been happy to allow five Indian internationals to sign up to play in both this season’s county championship and Royal London Cup.
“At a time when there is much discussion around the future of county cricket, the arrival of the biggest name in world cricket should give our domestic game a massive boost and positive exposure around the cricketing world which in turn can benefit every county,” observes Stewart.
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