There's six weeks till the end of the 2011 season - quite how it's gone so quickly is beyond me - but with nine fixtures remaining and a few days off before the next game I thought I'd look at where we are and where we can get to.
Of the nine fixtures only two are at the Oval, we have four away fixtures in the County Championship at Kent, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Essex before ending the season with our fifth and final remaining game at home to Derbyshire. In the CB40 we have three away games at Northants, Warwickshire and Leicestershire before ending the group games at home to Durham on the August bank holiday.
So, the Championship first. Five games to go, we're in fifth place, 29 points behind the leaders Northants, 24 behind Middlesex who have a game in hand, four points behind Gloucestershire and just a point behind Essex (over whom we have a game in hand). Glamorgan and Derbyshire are lurking in close-ish proximity twelve and thirteen points behind. It's tight at the top.
Is promotion a realistic target? Yes, just about but it'll be tricky. Northamptonshire have to play Middlesex twice before the end of the season and our North London rivals are in decent form where Northants are not, so there's still a chance we can catch them. We need to be looking at winning a minimum of two of the remaining five fixtures and losing even one might prove a killer blow. Two wins and three draws with plenty of bonus points along the way should see us to 200+ points, which will at least have us in contention. We have to look to the games against Kent and Leicestershire, our next two fixtures, as the best opportunities given their position in the table and that we've beaten them both once this season already. The danger is, as ever, that in pushing to win games we will likely leave ourselves vulnerable, Hamilton-Brown will find himself between a rock and a hard place on more than one occasion in the remaining weeks of the season.
Pragyan Ojha's call to join the India squad is a blow, particularly for our Championship chances and the Chief Executive has confirmed that no replacement will be sought. As the season draws to a close with games played on wearing pitches, a spinner who extracts sharp turn would increase our chances of killing off sides in the fourth innings - something which for a long time we have failed to do consistently. I had hoped Yasir Arafat was returning to his old self but his bowling against Northants in the CB40 made me doubt that. Again. Tim Linley can expect to bowl a lot of overs and we desperately need him to maintain his excellent recent form. The batting this year has relied largely on Zander de Bruyn with good support from Tom Maynard. Hamilton-Brown and Roy, both largely batting out of their comfort zones to their great credit, have contributed in fits and starts and Mark Ramprakash looks to be hitting form at the right time. Steven Davies will be disappointed with his form this year, while he has by no means been in terrible form, he is still yet to make a really telling contribution.
Our progression, or otherwise, up the table in the Championship will be the real yardstick by which this season is judged, and rightly so, but limited overs cricket was always likely to be our best suit this year given the age and talents of our squad. It is therefore disappointing that we don't have to concern ourselves with the latter stages of the Twenty20, but heartening that we very much do need to be thinking of the latter stages of the CB40 now.
At the very start of the season Chris Adams set out the CB40 as the hardest competition to progress in, oddly I thought given our excellent form last season right up until...well about this time last year. We now face the very real prospect of a home semi-final in the 40 over competition and who knows, maybe a Lord's final after that. I have been on record as saying I don't think our selection in this competition has been right, too many all rounders and not enough batsmen but time and again the team has found a way to win matches. I still think against the very best limited overs opposition, the Somersets and Sussexes of this world, that policy will come a cropper.
Adams has persisted with a top five of Hamilton-Brown, Davies, Roy, de Bruyn and Maynard and the allrounders starting at six - usually three of Spriegel, Schofield, Batty and Ansari filling the slots from six to eight, followed by three seamers most often in the shape of Arafat, Dernbach and Linley. This has often resulted in the obligatory blazing start, followed by a couple of quick wickets whereupon the numbers three, four and five batsmen realise they are the only hope of a big total, necessitating a bit of a slow-down. Wickets fall anyway and the middle order doesn't quite have the power to regularly force the pace (notwithstanding some admirable efforts from Messrs Schofield, Spriegel and Ansari at times). You only have to look at a team like Somerset, who typically might have a Hildreth or a Buttler at number six, to see what kind of a boost that extra batting can provide.
If we do progress (and two wins from the final four games - no mean feat - should see us through) I would like to see Adams forego an allrounder to fit in the extra batsman, ideally Mark Ramprakash if deemed fit enough. It's not as if that would leave us short of bowling options either, Zander de Bruyn has 137 List A wickets in his career and yet has bowled only 17 overs in 7 games, and Hamilton-Brown himself is no mug with the ball - as as the game against Northants showed. Six proper batsmen, with three of the aforementioned allrounders - all of them have contributed one way or another at various times - and Arafat offering something of an insurance policy in the lower middle order, is in my opinion a safer bet against the best opposition.
I appreciate that given the result in this form of the game, Chris Adams will feel quite comfortable in ignoring any such advice. However I do think the 'six batsmen-two all rounder' approach allows for greater flexibility than the 'five batsmen-three all rounder' one.
That then, for what it's worth, is my view of the world of Surrey County Cricket Club as at the 6th of August 2011. For all the negativity around the team in the aftermath of some horrible results this year, it remains the case that we could still theoretically end the year as CB40 champions and promoted to Division One. That we are in that position with only six weeks of the season to go, is something worthy of mention. Equally we could end 2011 as empty handed as we ended 2008, 2009 and 2010, which would be a massive disappointment given the significant investment in personnel over the last two years in particular. Let's hope it's not the latter and get behind the team for the rest of the season.