No one around the Surrey dressing room understands the spirit of the club more than their director of cricket, Alec Stewart, who made his debut as a player in 1981 but who through his father Micky has an association with the county that goes back virtually the whole of his 55 years.
The spirit of the club was uppermost in his thoughts at the close of the 2013 season when, having looked after the team since midsummer following the sacking of team director Chris Adams, he was asked to consider becoming head of the club’s cricketing operations on a permanent basis.
In his head was a vision based on that Surrey spirit, a vision that has come to fruition with their first County Championship title for 16 years, when he was still a player.
“I met the chairman and the chief executive and I said ‘if I’m going to come back, please let me try and do it my way’,” Stewart said, breaking away from his team’s celebrations after a three-wicket victory over Worcestershire at New Road put the team in an unassailable position with two matches to go.
“I said ‘if it doesn’t work kick me out, but if it does work then you can pat me on the back, even though it will be the players who have done it.'”
Stewart’s way was to build a team based on homegrown players, which he believes had been the bedrock of Surrey’s 18 previous County Championships, including the three he enjoyed at the end of his career under Adam Hollioake’s captaincy.
“I said from the start that we had to have a nucleus of home players,” he said. “It’s almost a unique club in that you’ve got to understand the club to work there I think.
“If you produce your own players they fight together. If they come through the system, they understand what the club is about and they want to play for the club, which means that when things get tough they can find that little bit more, and when they win it means more to them.
“So I decided pretty early on that I wanted to have that nucleus, to build a squad around homegrown players.”
A clearout began almost immediately. Of the last team selected by Adams, only three – Jade Dernbach, Rory Burns and Arun Harinath – are still at the club. Meanwhile, Stewart was identifying the likes of Sam and Tom Curran, Ollie Pope and Amar Virdi as those he wanted to see rising through the ranks.
“I spoke to Gareth Townsend, the academy director, and said ‘right, who can we bring through?'” Stewart said.
“I wanted to identify those players, and then supplement it with players coming in from outside. And that’s what we have done.
“We brought in players like Scott Borthwick and Mark Stoneman and Rikki Clarke. People asked questions about Rikki Clarke’s age but I say it doesn’t matter, he’s a good cricketer.
“We had Kumar Sangakkara, who scored eight hundreds but brought so much more that we now have a line that players ask themselves when they are in difficult situations: ‘What would Sanga do?’ And Morne Morkel, this year he has been the icing on the cake.”
Stewart paid tribute to his squad but also to his team off the field.
“It was important, too, to have the right people in place off the field,” he said. “So it was about appointing good people there, such as Graham Ford, an excellent person, and Michael Di Venuto, who has been outstanding and then people like Vikram Solanki making the transition from player into coach.
“Under them this group of players have grown together. It’s a real shame Gareth Batty [Rory Burns’s predecessor as captain] is not here because he has played a massive part over the last four years and is running the second team today.”
Of the side in action at Worcester, seven have come through the system. Clarke began his career at Surrey before leaving for Warwickshire. Stoneman, Morkel, Dean Elgar and Ben Foakes are the only exceptions.
Surrey’s successes in their history have often sparked periods of sustained dominance and Stewart believes another could be in the offing.
“It feels like this is going to be the start of something,” he said. “You don’t want this to be just a one-off and the toughest thing now is to follow it up with more success next year.
“We will lose players to England so we have to make sure we have a good squad. We have already signed Jordan Clark and Liam Plunkett with that in mind. You have got to cover for what you are going to lose. We are going to lose the Currans, who will be off to the World Cup, Ollie Pope will be with England, Rory Burns will be with England – that’s for sure, I think.
Burns is still awaiting that England call but clearly Stewart has faith it will come.
“It’s nice to sit back now and watch this group grow together but the important thing is that they’ve got to continue to grow.
“We will celebrate this success. I want the players to enjoy what they have achieved but we want to enjoy the next three or four years too.”