Hamilton-Brown: Middx and Essex the teams to beat

Middlesex and Essex will provide rejuvenated Surrey with the stiffest opposition to their ambition of winning County Championship promotion in 2011, according to the Brown Caps’ captain Rory Hamilton-Brown.

Now 23, Surrey’s youngest captain believes the experience of being thrown into the deep end last season, following his appointment by cricket manager Chris Adams, will be of huge benefit to him this summer.

“There is just no comparison between the way I feel about doing the job this season and how I felt at the start of 2010,” said Hamilton-Brown.

“I’ve also had a brilliant winter away from things, in Australia, working on my game and reflecting on everything that happened last season. It was great to be able to step back, analyse a few things and prepare myself for this year.

“I learned a few harsh lessons, especially when things did not start too well in the first five weeks of the season, but by the end of it I felt we were playing some very good cricket and the whole experience of being captain last year was a massive learning curve.”

Surrey begin the new campaign at home to Northamptonshire, the match at the Kia Oval starting on April 8, while Essex entertain Kent at Chelmsford and London rivals Middlesex continue their pre-season preparation by sitting out the opening round of Championship games and playing a gentle friendly against Cambridge MCCU at Fenner’s.

Other second division counties, especially Glamorgan and Leicestershire who both narrowly missed out on promotion last year, will fancy their chances of finishing the summer in the coveted top two places but before a ball has been bowled it does look to me as if it will be the south-east quartet of Surrey, Middlesex, Essex and Kent who will be pressing hardest for elevation to the elite.

Of the four, Kent have the frailest squad in terms of depth, but there is a core of proven performers at all of them while Surrey, Middlesex and Essex have also made some strong signings during the winter with the likes of Yasir Arafat and Tom Maynard moving to the Oval, Chris Rogers and Corey Collymore to Lord’s and Owais Shah to Chelmsford.

Indeed, a composite XI from the four south-east counties, just of England-qualified players let alone featuring overseas players such as Rogers and Arafat, could take on the Rest of England with confidence: Strauss, Cook, Ramprakash or Shah, Pietersen, Morgan, Bopara, Davies, Tredwell, Dernbach, Finn, Tremlett. Reserves: Key, Denly, Foster, Stevens, Roland-Jones, Joseph.

Hamilton-Brown, meanwhile, is happy too that the return from long-term injury of Michael Brown, who missed the entire 2010 Championship programme, and the recruitment of Maynard from Glamorgan will provide much-needed added solidity to the top of the batting order.

“As captain, I felt I had to sacrifice myself a bit last season in the Championship by moving up to fill the top order positions that always seemed to be vacant because of the injury to Michael and the lack of form of others.

“I still felt I made a contribution, but in many ways I lost sight of my own game a bit because of the demands of getting accustomed to captaincy as well as having to fill in up and down the order, and so I am now looking forward to occupying a settled role at No 5 or No 6.

“I can be more effective for the team there, with a specific role to play, and I can also work a little bit more on my bowling as a result.

“One of the main things I learned last year too was the importance of making time in the daily pattern of captain’s responsibilities for my own game preparation. I will be the first to the ground this summer, I will get my own practice in and then, over breakfast, I will sit down with Chris Adams and turn my attention to team matters.

“Middlesex and Essex will both be strong this year, in my view, but I’m genuinely excited about our chances – especially because of the signings we have made, the advances of players like Tremlett, Dernbach and Davies during the winter, the fact that with a fit-again Brown and Chris Jordan it is like having two more new players, and because there is a really good feeling around the squad.

“We have real experience in the squad, and a fantastic group of young and talented players, and that is a good mix. To be captain of this squad is a huge privilege.”

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