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George Dobell at The Oval
April 6, 2012
Surrey 264 and 250 for 8 lead Sussex 196 by 318 runs
There was a time, not so long ago, when teams would have reacted to a tense situation and testing conditions with a straight bat and obdurate defence.
Not any more. These days batsmen are more likely to bash their way out of trouble. The days of players such as Geoff Boycott, Alan Hill or Peter Roebuck batting all day for an unbeaten 80 have all but gone. As, up to a point, have the days when you expected matches to end in a draw. Attack, it appears, has become the best form of defence.
The game has changed. It is, in many ways, more entertaining, but it is hard not to conclude that something - a certain level of craft - might have all but disappeared. Whether these encounters are preparing players for the rigours of Test cricket is highly debatable. Few batsmen will have much joy trying to hit the likes of Saeed Ajmal or Dale Styen out of an attack.
Here, however, Rory Hamilton-Brown took this match away from Sussex on the second afternoon with a blistering innings. When he came to the crease the game was still, just about, in the balance. Surrey had just lost three for three in nine balls and had a lead of 123 with six wickets in hand. After the early loss of Jacques Rudolph, drawn into playing away from his body and guiding one to point, Mark Ramprakash was run out, the victim of a direct hit from Amjad Khan at mid-on with only one stump to aim at, as he attempted a sharp single. Chris Jordan was then stumped as he dozily allowed his back foot to lift, while Zander de Bruyn was undone by a bit of extra bounce and guided a catch to slip.
But Hamilton-Brown responded with a ferocious counterattack. Enjoying some loose offerings from Sussex's change bowlers, he thrashed 68 of his 89 in boundaries to ensure his side would not relinquish their advantage. Lewis Hatchett, punished for dropping short, saw his first delivery pulled for six, while Chris Nash, whose offspin is not the most intimidating of prospects, was greeted into the attack with a brace of boundaries. Hamilton-Brown also drove beautifully, with an on-drive off Amjad Khan the stroke of the day.
It might have been different had James Anyon received better support. The Sussex seamer generated impressive pace, breaking Hamilton-Brown's helmet with one sharp bouncer, and finding lift in the sluggish surface that others could not. He also kept charging in - his first spell was 11 overs - and, as the light failed (play was eventually curtailed by about half-an-hour despite the floodlights) he looked a hostile prospect.
When he was out of the attack, however, Surrey feasted. Hamilton-Brown added 136 in 27.4 overs with Tom Maynard, with the latter happy to play the supporting role but again driving sweetly.
It was, perhaps, fitting though that Hamilton-Brown should fall to a top-edged pull - the victim of a wonderful catch by Murray Goodwin running back from midwicket. Surrey are a side that will live, and die, by the sword. They are going to make for entertaining viewing.
Hamilton-Brown and Maynard's departures precipitated another collapse - Surrey lost 4 for 19 before bad light intervened but they still hold the upper hand.
"It's early season and guys are not used to batting for long periods," Hamilton-Brown said afterwards. "We have batsmen up the order who graft for their runs, but we both like to put bat to ball. That is our natural game.
"We've had a lot of opportunities throughout the game but not taken them. That's disappointing, but if we can eke out another 20 in the morning, we'll be in a strong position and they'll have to bat very well to win."
Earlier Joe Gatting batted well but lacked support as Sussex surrendered a first innings deficit of 68. Anyon and Hatchett accompanied him for over an hour in adding 74 for the final two wickets, but too many men fell to cross-batted strokes when a straight bat was required. Crucially, there was no weak link in the Surrey attack and their bowlers maintained a fuller length than Sussex's,
It would be unwise to completely discount the chances of a side containing a player as gifted as Goodwin. The pitch remains better than the scores suggest and the lead - currently 318 - is not unobtainable. But Sussex will need to produce a vastly improved performance in their second innings if they are to deny Surrey their first win in the top division of the Championship since 2007.
Edited by Alan Gardner
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
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