Northamptonshire 154 for 8 (Procter 61*, Clark 3-45) trail Surrey 401 (Burns 107, Curran 73, Atkinson 66*, Overton 59, Procter 3-68, Sanderson 3-72) by 247 runs
Surrey have struggled to maintain their success in four-day cricket since winning the Championship in 2018 but the early signs suggest that they are on course to challenge for the title again.
Their season started with two home wins – including one by an innings against a strong Hampshire side – and two high-scoring draws on the road and they are well-placed to add a third against Northamptonshire after a day which demonstrated the depth of their squad which is unparalleled across the country.
He watched this morning as Curran gave away a prime opportunity to make a long overdue first professional hundred – he has now scored nearly 5,000 career runs across 246 appearances without one – and Clark edged behind for 2, leaving Surrey 271 for 8 and in danger of falling short of a third batting point.
But he ensured they got there and beyond with a partnership of 124 in 23.3 overs with Overton for the ninth wicket, a stand which broke Northants’ resolve and gave Surrey every chance of forcing an innings win. Initially measured, he hit four boundaries off Tom Taylor in the 110th over as Northants searched for a ninth wicket – and a third bowling point; while Overton’s runs came primarily down the ground or over midwicket, Atkinson scored half of his dozen boundaries through the covers.
“Jamie and I just tried to get ourselves in and then go from there,” Atkinson said. “I think they tired and then the runs began to flow. We enjoyed it. Everyone bowled really well as a unit and there is still something in the pitch for the bowlers, with a bit of zip and nip.”
Clark, meanwhile, continued his excellent form with the ball. While two of his wickets were soft dismissals – Emilio Gay, whipping to square leg, and Lewis McManus, chipping to cover, were both caught by Curran – he built pressure with the impressive Dan Worrall and trapped the in-form Will Young on the front pad to make the first breakthrough. Atkinson should have had a wicket himself but for a rare drop in the slips by Colin de Grandhomme.
With Worrall – signed on a three-year contract as a local player – striking late in the day and de Grandhomme – a short-term replacement for the injured Kemar Roach – also in the wickets, Surrey showed off the benefits of canny recruitment as well as their trust in youth; Clark, after all, was a signing from Lancashire in 2018 and has developed into a reliable senior pro at 31. Curran, whose overs are heavily limited by the ECB as he returns to fitness after the back stress fracture which ruled him out of the winter, did not need to bowl a ball.
Of course, it would be churlish to ignore the fact that Surrey have unmatched financial clout in the county game, with an annual revenue of a similar size to New Zealand Cricket (NZC). While Northants, despite their recent commercial growth and recovery from their years of recession, have to spend every penny wisely, Surrey can throw their weight around.
But their strength as a club has been to strike a balance between their primary objective – which, as Alec Stewart has often made clear, is to develop England players – and the pragmatism of coping without them when they are away on international duty. Since his promotion to the role of interim head coach, Gareth Batty has emphasised the importance of squad depth: this week, they have coped easily without Pope and the injured Jamie Smith, while Ryan Patel and Will Jacks appear to have made strides over the winter.
“We took two early wickets this morning and we were so close to bowling them out for 300 but that’s first division cricket,” he said. “That hour when Atkinson and Overton built their stand really changed the game. I think the cumulative fatigue from the last month did kick in.”
Northants have shown plenty of resolve so far this season, drawing all three of their games to date including a 120-over grind to cling on against Yorkshire. They will need to summon that same spirit this week to stop Surrey extending their lead at the top of the table.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98