County Championship previews are ten-a-penny at the moment, some much more valiantly than me extending to the full set of 18 counties. If it's alright with you, I'll stick to just one (the most important one, no less).
Most of the reviews I've read seem to reflect pretty positively on Surrey's chances, the Cricketer Magazine even tipping us for the title, and David Lloyd has said he fancies us because of our mix of experience and youth. Would I go that far? You'll have to wait till the end of the article for that...
Despite what would appear to be an embarrassment of riches in the batting department I still maintain this is our weakest suit. Mark Ramprakash has probably just one season left in him, whether it will be repeat of 2011 remains to be seen. He may have returned from injury a bit early last year and then a back complaint restricted his movement later in the season. His struggles against the Tiflex ball are also well documented, not least by the man himself. A clutch of low scores early season, particularly if they are bowled or LBW, will lead to vultures circling. However I maintain he's still got it in him to pass 1,000 runs for the umpteenth time, and his comforting presence at number three is needed now as much as it ever was.
The position of opening batsmen is 50% solved until the end of May, with the arrival of Jacques Rudolph. Indeed once Steven Davies returns after the second Championship match we should have a very handy pair of opening bats. Although not an opener by trade, Davies was magnificent during the Championship run-in last season, in the final four games, all of which we won, he averaged 78. He may see it as a genuine route into England's test side. Who fills in for the first couple of games is anyone's guess.
Zander de Bruyn will likely continue at number four where he averaged 51 from 21 innings last season. Chris Adams confirmed at the AGM last week that Hamilton-Brown will bat at number five (although this may yet be shelved if he is required to open temporarily early-season). He averaged 33 batting there last season from just five innings, more encouragingly he averaged 40 from 12 innings at number five in 2010. He still has yet to prove he is willing to knuckle down and play a long innings - on only four occasions in 58 innings in 2010 and 2011 did he face more than 100 deliveries. Compare that to Maynard, no less an attacking batsman, who saw out 100+ deliveries on six occasions in 2011. To reiterate the point I made at the end of last season, the skipper also needs to convert his starts more often, out of those 30 innings he passed 20 on 21 occasions but only registered six scores of fifty or more.
Tom Maynard, the unsung hero of 2011's batting, will probably continue at number six where he averaged a princely 48 in 2011. Though he scored runs throughout last season, without an extended barren run, he was a bit 'all or nothing' towards the end of the year. In his last 16 innings of 2011 he scored two sparkling hundreds but also registered 12 scores under 30. More consistent heavy run scoring this year will be his goal.
Which all leads us to Jason Roy. I make no secret of the fact that I consider Roy to be one of the most special talents in county cricket - and I'm not alone in thinking that. But he himself will be disappointed with his 2011 returns in the Championship. Such is his talent I am often left thinking that the only man who can get Jason Roy out is Jason Roy. Word is that he has tinkered with his technique over the winter but as much as that is important he, like Hamilton-Brown, needs to prove that he has the mental staying power to stick in and bat time. A couple of his knocks in the CB40 showed how intelligent he is, he just needs to convert some of that to facing the red ball.
Rory Burns and Gary Wilson will contest the role of understudy to Steve Davies. The excellent pre-season form of Rory Burns has come at a cruel time for Gary Wilson who looked a shoo-in to play his first Championship game since last April (and Adams may yet prefer him). Even once Davies has returned there is still a chance Burns, with his attacking strokeplay, can force his way into the side.
Beyond those there is a clutch of batsmen who have been knocking about for a few years and may see 2011 as their last opportunity to make it big at Surrey. Arun Harinath, Matt Spriegel and Tom Lancefield all have the chance to force their way into a top order which has been largely short of form in pre-season. All three have their merits, Harinath is mentally strong and has expanded his range of shots, Lancefield is a positive batsman who came close to breaking through in 2010 before injury intervened in 2011 and Spriegel offers staying power, part time off-spin and excellent fielding into the mix. Dominic Sibley in the Academy is a prodigious youngster who despite his tender age could be troubling those three as a first reserve by the end of the year - and he's an opener.
Without question the highlight of 2011 was the emergence of Tim Linley as a powerful force in Surrey's bowling attack. I had previously criticised him as too one-dimensional to be hugely successful - I was wrong to do so. While it's true he rarely mixes things up, he does have something approaching metronomic accuracy and when he's in a good rhythm he's very difficult to get away. The change away from the Tiflex ball may harm him and a repeat of last season's 73 wicket haul is unlikely, but not impossible.
Last season's second highest wicket-taker, Stuart Meaker, will remain an important part of our attack. I can think of few better sights last season than Meaker detonating a batsman's stumps with a searing yorker and when he's in a groove he is simply irresistible. Adams and Hamilton-Brown will have noted that using him in short-ish bursts is the best way to avoid injury. He may be called away on England Lions duty but hopefully we'll have him at our disposal for most of 2012.
Jade Dernbach was something of a stranger to our Championship campaign last season, playing just 9 of the 16 matches mainly due to England duty. When he did turn out he was less effective than in 2010, 22 wickets at 39 as opposed to 46 at 29 the year before. Like Meaker, he will probably be required by England at various points but early season we should see plenty of him and I think he'll be a formidable proposition. Likewise Jon Lewis, not a marquee signing but a phenomenally reliable and experienced seamer who offers a handy lower-order batting option.
Chris Tremlett, even more of a stranger to us than Jade in 2011, will almost certainly be absent until late-May at the earliest having had surgery on his troublesome back injury. In his 3 outings last season he didn't look at the races, returning only six wickets at 51, on all three occasions comprehensively out-bowled by Meaker. Some have suggested his England career is over but he won't want to accept that and hopefully in trying to force his way back into the fold he'll find his 2010 best again.
Murali Kartik won't join until after the IPL has finished in June. While he probably won't be able to replicate the stunning form of Pragyan Ojha from last year, he is still a fine bowler with many years of county cricket behind him. Matt Dunn and George Edwards will probably only come into contention if injuries intervene but both have the talent to more than hold their own if called upon. On the (admittedly limited) evidence of pre-season games, Freddie van den Bergh could become a fine spinner and may be considered once he returns from his studies, but more likely in the limited overs sides than in the Championship.
Gareth Batty had an impressive 2011, averaging 26 with the bat and 33 with the ball. But those figures don't quite tell the whole story, for two reasons. First, many of his 532 runs were scored precisely when we needed them most and a good few of his 36 wickets came at a time when a side was threatening to take the game away from us. Secondly, as is always the case with Batty, his presence on the field seems to lift the side, and probably annoy the opposition. Adams seems to value what he brings to the side extremely highly, not without reason.
There was talk late last season of Chris Jordan departing for pastures new but he was given a one year extension late in the day. Adams played him in the final four fixtures of 2011, admirably sticking with him - he scored 19 runs and took no wickets in the first two of those games but fought back to pick up six wickets and score 150 utterly crucial runs in the next two games. I have spoken many times of the balance a fit and firing Chris Jordan brings to the side, if he can really hit his straps he will be completely invaluable.
Zafar Ansari was a revelation in 2011 making both T20 and Championship debuts. He didn't score buckets of runs or take loads of wickets, but his cool demeanour, exceptional out-fielding and all-round potential made headlines for all the right reasons. I expect his rapid progression to continue this season once he returns from university just in time for the T20s. Tom Jewell has been knocking around the fringes of Surrey for a while now, not possessed of the pace or big-hitting talents of Chris Jordan he is often overlooked. However his bowling, consistent rather than explosive, does get wickets at Second XI level and he can bat, he just needs to step up to the next level.
So what does that all amount to? What exactly held us back in the first part of 2011? Without doubt a propensity to self-combust - something that was largely eliminated in those memorable final fixtures and surprise surprise, we won them all. Our young and undoubtedly talented players have another year of experience under their belts, Maynard to my mind has come the furthest and much will be expected of Roy and Hamilton-Brown in the Championship to show that they can progress similarly. The addition of experience in Rudolph, Kartik and Lewis will help in that area too. There is no reason, with the players we have at our disposal, why we couldn't win the Championship. But you can't look at it in such isolation. There are some bloody good sides out there who know how to win Championships, or in the case of Somerset, nearly win Championships. Come on now, did you really think I'd predict us winning the whole thing? We should certainly be aiming a damn sight higher than mere survival, but I think anything higher than fourth would constitute an impressive achievement - and one that we can build on in the future.