By Sam Dalling
Surrey star Gareth Batty’s competitive edge won’t let him call time on his evergreen playing career just yet – at least not until youth can catch him!
Despite his advancing years, the 42-year-old remains a key fixture in the Surrey side and signed a one-year contract extension in the winter off the back of a fruitful 2019 campaign.
However, at that point, few could have predicted the current global COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, faced with the bleak prospect of a skeleton summer at best, no one would have blamed the nine-test man had he brought down the curtains after 23 seasons as a pro.
But Batty – who helped himself to 48 wickets for the Oval outfit across all formats last year – isn’t ready to give up the ghost just yet and is adamant he won’t turn his back on his playing career unless and until his contributions diminish.
“As and when the end comes, I’ll be very comfortable – and I’m one of not many that can say that,” he explained.
“When Stewie (Alec Stewart) gives me the call and says ‘Bats, that’s enough’, I’ll shake his hand and we will go out for dinner.
“However, the ‘but’, and it’s a big ‘but’, is that I am a competitive sod so while I can keep up with the youngsters I’ll keep going.
“Don’t get me wrong, age is against me, but it’s a nice challenge and I’ve still got the desire and drive to prove people wrong.
“I’m in top 25% of the squad fitness wise and there’s a big part of me saying “why should I be giving up?”.
“I’ve worked my socks off for 20 odd years and in some ways, I feel I’m getting better with age.
“I’ve definitely got more stubborn and more blinkered. That’s a downside, but equally I understand situations and can overcome them much better these days.”
Although the spikes won’t be hung up imminently, Batty – who can look back with pride on a distinguished career – has had half an eye on the future for a while.
Since 2018, the off-spinner has been earning his stripes as a coach under the guidance of former teammate and incumbent Surrey boss Alec Stewart.
And as the Oval faithful know well, he was no stranger to leadership roles before that.
Following the tragic passing of teammate Tom Maynard in 2012, he had taken the reins on a temporary basis, drawing praise from many quarters as the County staved off Division 1 relegation in nigh-on impossible circumstances.
Later, the right-armer took the role on a permanent basis, marching his troops back into the promised land of Division One of the County Championship during his first season at the helm in 2015.
The Brown Caps came within a whisker of the Royal London One Day cup crown that same year, and over the following two campaigns, the veteran spinner helped lay the foundations for the County’s 2018 title whitewash.
These days Batty is content to be back amongst the rank and file, having passed the captaincy baton to England opener Rory Burns two seasons back.
And the man who collected twenty full England caps across three formats is adamant there is no conflict of interest with his dual coaching role come match day.
“I’ve got to think player first in terms of fitness and form. I’ve got to be performing both on and off the field in the manner required.
“Then when it comes to selection, the coaching part of my role clicks in, but what we don’t want is any muddying of the waters.
“There are no blurred lines. Burnsy was the man for the job for a good few years and I’ve got nothing but respect for him.
“As a senior player, if there is something I don’t agree with I might have a quiet word later, but there is no way that I am breaking ranks.”
Over more than two decades in the game, Batty has forged himself a reputation as one of the fiercest opponents on the county circuit.
Without the armoury of a fast bowler to call upon, a spinner must find alternative means of disrupting the opposition.
And never one to shy away from a stern word in the batman’s ear, the man from Bradford has certainly mastered the art of feather rustling during his long career.
On occasion the combative Yorkshireman’s antics have landed him in hot water – most memorably forcing him to miss t20 finals day in 2013 following a heated clash with then-Somerset star Peter Trego during the quarter final.
But while at times he may have crossed the proverbial line, there is method to the madness, with former skipper revealing his pre-game swotting up means there is often more to his behaviour than meets the eye.
“Sometimes being a spinner, the game can be loaded against you” he explained.
“So you’ve got to play on the edge and people don’t always understand that.
“But you’ve also got to be smart about it, pick your battles and do your research.
“For example, you don’t want to get too up in the face of someone you want to keep quiet, but there are others, who you have a good idea that you can get under their skin and push them outside the zone they like to play in.
“I can’t apologise for being the way I am – I have to play that way.
“Sometimes I’ve crossed the line but if I have it is done with good intentions and I have to take the consequences on the chin.”
There’s been no shortage of talented slow bowlers at the Oval over the past couple of decades.
During his first spell at the Surrey, it was a case of watch and learn for Batty, with the great Saqlain Mushtaq and Ian Salisbury ahead of him in pecking order.
He wasn’t chucked the ball at all during his only championship outing – a game in which he came in at first drop – with it nigh-on impossible to break into a side that dominated domestic four-day cricket during the late 90s and early noughties.
A change of scenery was required, and a move to Worcestershire paid immediate dividends in 2002, with the veteran snaring 56 wickets in his maiden championship campaign.
His good form, earned him a seat on the plane for England tours to Australia, Bangladesh, the West Indies and Sri Lanka over the next couple of seasons and, while he never cemented an international spot, Batty continued to impress at New Road, before hopping back on the M4 ahead of the 2010 season to don Surrey colours for a second time.
Now regarded as the elder statement of the Oval dressing room, Batty has watched and worked with the next cab off the rank, Amar Virdi, at close quarters.
The 21-year-old was integral to the London outfit’s Championship-winning campaign the season before last, spinning his way to an impressive 40 wickets.
Having followed this up in 2019 with 23 victims at a cost of less than 20 runs each and a seven-wicket match haul in the England Lion’s win over Australia A at the MCG in February, the youngster is in the frame should any international cricket prove possible over the summer.
While being named in the 30 man squad is not a call-up in the traditional sense, appearing on the list demonstrates just how highly the young off-spinner is regarded at the ECB, and Batty believes that given time his teammate has what it takes to make the step up to international cricket.
“Talent wise Amar is second to none,” he enthused.
“He bowls with great shape and is a fantastic attacking bowler.
“As a spinner you’ve got to understand that you have a variety of roles in the team and that takes time.
“There are at times other roles to be fulfilled and he is in the process of learning that.
“I’m not one to say that you have to have played X amount of years before you can play for England, but we’ve got to be patient and allow him time to fulfil that talent.
“First and foremost, he’s got to work hard to get ahead of Moeen Ali and young Dom Bess, but he’s a prodigious talent.”