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FEATURE: Surrey’s Alec Stewart backs Jason Roy for Ashes glory

The great marquee was up on the Kia Oval’s outfield last week although the weather hardly justified giving such protection to Surrey’s players as they netted.

Then again, maybe the trappings of festival cricket were fitting barely a month before the start of a season which will see a celebration of cricket almost without parallel.

For the first time since the inaugural World Cup in 1975, the game’s greatest international one-day tournament will be held in England during an Ashes summer.

Opportunities to publicise the game could hardly come any bigger and the sense of occasion is not lost on Alec Stewart, one of the most patriotic fellows ever to sport the crown and lions.

“It’s so important England do well,” said Surrey’s director of cricket.

“If we win the World Cup for the first time and do so on home soil, it will have a huge influence on the game. And whatever standard England or Australia reach, this is still the Ashes. It will be a tough summer, but potentially it could be the best ever in the history of English cricket.”

No pressure, then, some people might note wryly, but Stewart knows as well as anyone what seasons like this can be like.

He was the captain in 1999 when England made an early exit from the last World Cup held here and 33 of his 133 Tests were played against Australia, when that country boasted one of the best international teams in the history of the game.

There were defeats along the way but no-one ever accused Stewart of shirking the battle and now he is encouraging Surrey’s cricketers to seize their own chances.

He has built a strong and powerful squad at the Oval with the aim of defending the County Championship, but also in the expectation that his players will be called into the one-day or Test squads.

And he will be delighted should those calls come along for Rory Burns, Ollie Pope, the Currans and the rest.

“Rory looks to me as though he’s fitted into international cricket,” he says of Burns.

“He’s played on surfaces he won’t have encountered before and I was impressed with the way he went about his job.

“I would hope he’s heavily pencilled in for that Ireland Test match.”

Stewart also believes Pope will come back a better player for having had a taste of Test cricket last year and he has by no means given up hope of Jason Roy securing an Ashes spot.

“I’ve been a big fan of Jason’s and I’ve gone on record as saying he can play in Tests,” said Stewart. “He has that ambition and he will be very much in the selectors’ thoughts.

“He’ll play one Championship game for us before joining the England squad but if he has a good World Cup, I’ll be very surprised if he’s not involved in the Ashes.”

Ashes answer: Jason Roy can solve England’s top-order woes in Tests, says Alec Stewart. Photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

For Stewart, the development of a strong Surrey team, some of whom also feature in a powerful England side, represents a natural progression which is beneficial to both county and country.

Some may cite Yorkshire as proof of that argument, but Stewart’s father, Micky, played in the Surrey team which won seven successive titles in the 1950s, when England had the best Test side in the world.

You get the impression Alec wouldn’t mind showing his dad it can happen again. 

For that to occur, though, Surrey must first retain the championship they won in such grand style last year. Fortunately Stewart believes he has assembled a group of players hungry enough to do just that.

“Those players have got a medal but once you’ve won one, you want another one and this isn’t a squad who will be happy to sit back,” he said. “They know this group hasn’t peaked, the individuals can get better.

“We want to do what we also managed to do around the turn of this century and there are still people who talk about the great side of the 1950s. These cricketers want to be spoken about like that at the end of their careers and that sort of thing drives people on.”

Return: Morne Morkel will lead the Surrey attack again in 2019, but that hasn’t stopped Alec Stewart from adding to his seamer options. Photo: Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Given his players seem to require little motivation, Stewart is giving his attention to showing them how they can achieve their goals but he has only to look at the other teams in Division One to realise winning the title may be more difficult this summer.

“When I came in, I said the hardest thing would be winning the first trophy but a lot of other counties have now strengthened as well and the first division will be very tough,” he said.

“Essex will have Alastair Cook and that’s like having a world-class player available all season. Jack Brooks is a big signing for Somerset and Nottinghamshire have brought in more players again.

“The standard will go up again and that means our standard must go up.”

To achieve that – and in anticipation of England calls – Surrey signed Liam Plunkett from Yorkshire and Jordan Clark from Lancashire at the back end of last season.

Plunkett, of course, is an international cricketer who may be involved in the World Cup but Clark’s signing was prompted by the excellent reports Stewart received from his own players after their matches against Lancashire.

To the alarm of many first division batsmen, Morne Morkel will be returning and Dean Elgar will be Surrey’s overseas player, although the South African will not arrive until April 25 because Stewart does not want to omit any England candidates from his team before the World Cup.

And when Surrey take the field against Essex at the Kia Oval on April 11 the county’s director of cricket has some neat lines ready with which to remind them of the challenge ahead.

“We haven’t won a game since clinching the Championship last year,” he said.

“We drew with Somerset when the covers got blown off and then lost to Essex in a tight game at the end of the season. That gives us a reason to work harder.

“If you sit back and think you’ll be fine, you won’t be. We’re in possession of the trophy and we were the stand-out side last year. But we were the hunters then, now we’re the hunted.”

PAUL EDWARDS / Photo: Getty Images

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