'Surrey is the bubble I'm involved in'
Controlling the controllables is one of the mantras of the modern sportsman. In this respect, Rory Hamilton-Brown is very much like his peers - he would love to play for England but is happy for his form to do the talking; winning the Championship would be "a dream come true", though he will make sure his Surrey side takes things one game at a time. But there is one aspect that is more difficult to govern, even for a talented young cricketer, and that is what people think about you.
Having been brought back to Surrey, where he came through the youth system, after a high-profile pursuit by the coach, Chris Adams, to become club captain at just 22 years of age - the youngest in 138 years - Hamilton-Brown, perhaps naturally, made headlines. Not all of them were favourable, with questions raised about his age and inexperience, as well as assumptions about his background. He hasn't been seen with a newspaper since; he jokes that if he had read everything that was written about him, he might have "ended up on Beachy Head or something".
"I made a promise to myself," he says of his decision to ignore the write-ups. "To start with, there was a lot of negative stuff. It hurts you a bit because I hadn't really done anything; I hadn't shown to be good enough, I hadn't shown not to be good enough. Obviously with a double-barrelled surname, the media were very interested in that... Because there was a lot of negative, I just felt if I confide with people that care about me within the dressing room - Adams, Ian Salisbury, my father, my mother - and those people are telling me whether I'm doing well or not, I think that's all you can ask for."
Two years on, Hamilton-Brown is still the youngest captain on the county circuit, though his credentials are no longer in doubt. Leading Surrey back into Division One and securing the county's first trophy since 2003 has seen to that, and it is for his batting that he now wishes to spark discussion. Following a first season of what he calls "survival", balancing the captaincy with his role in the side as a batsman, in 2011, Hamilton-Brown scored more than 1000 Championship runs, the first time he had passed the batting benchmark. As the likes of James Taylor, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler entered the reckoning for England, Hamilton-Brown admits to disappointment at being overlooked by the selectors.
"As the captaincy's gone on, a lot of the stuff has become a little bit easier, you can do a few things on autopilot," he says. "I knew that I wouldn't reap initial rewards. I thought that it might put my England ambitions back a year or so, but it was a dream of mine to captain the club I've grown up playing for, and it's always been a dream to play for England. I felt that with having the pressures of captaincy, if I could come through that and turn into the cricketer I wanted to be, coupled with being a good leader, that would help me ultimately.
"I was disappointed not to be involved at the end of last year. The first year, quite rightly, I had a very good one-day year but my four-day cricket wasn't quite up to scratch, but then last year I felt, on top of being captain, gaining promotion, winning a trophy and my performances with the bat, I thought it may have been recognised - but it wasn't. That's when I go back to keeping my performances on the board for Surrey, and hopefully at some point it'll get picked up.
"I have a belief that if I get my game right, I'll be good enough. I want to play when I'm ready, if and when I'm good enough. There's no rush. The rush for me is to put in performances so that people start talking about it."
With his broad shoulders and quasi-mullet of blond hair, as well as the beginnings of a fair beard, there is something leonine about Hamilton-Brown, even beyond his first name. Far from roaring into the room, however, his first words are to apologise for being late, having caught the train in from his mum's, where he had been to see his younger brother and sister.
The sense of family is not far away at The Oval, either, with Hamilton-Brown praising the influence of first-team coach Salisbury, and describing Adams as being "like a father figure". They were team-mates at Sussex, where Hamilton-Brown spent two seasons rebuilding his career after asking to be released by Surrey in 2007. And Adams was dogged in his pursuit of a player he described at the time as having a "super tactical brain".
Hamilton-Brown says he thinks "very deeply" about the game, to the point where some of his decisions catch even Adams by surprise. He has also shown a willingness to put the team before his own cause, with his move to open the batting - in only his second full season in four-day cricket - prompted by a lack of a natural alternative in the squad.
Though he has now returned to the middle order, he believes the experiment did him good in the long run. "I just feel more adept at either situation now, coming in at 120 for 3 or 20 for 3. I feel comfortable, that's where I've done it for a long period of time and had success doing it. It's just that inner belief that you can do it. But also, it's nice to walk in at 120 for 3 and the shine's gone off."
In three Championship matches so far, Hamilton-Brown has 284 runs at 47.33, despite the early season difficulties bemoaned by his team-mate Mark Ramprakash (Hamilton-Brown, for his part, says he prefers results pitches to dead tracks). With questions over the make-up of England's middle order, his time may not be long in coming, five years after he captained his country at Under-19 level. His response, however, is immediate when asked if he would prefer an England call-up or a Championship winner's medal with Surrey.
"Championship title, no doubt. It would be a dream come true to have a Championship title, but that's a long way off. It means so much. There's been so much put in by everyone in this group, Chris Adams, Ian Salisbury, those sorts of guys to start with. There's been a lot of time and effort. There's also been a lot of heartache for the last few years at the club, a lot of tough days - so it would be absolutely unbelievable if something like that happened."
Hamilton-Brown spent the winter playing cricket in Zimbabwe and New Zealand, where he worked on his offspin - he is keen to maintain his reputation as an allrounder, particularly in one-day cricket, to enhance his international prospects - but he currently has no desire to broaden his horizons further by seeking involvement in the IPL.
"It's not an ambition of mine at the minute because I want to be playing for England and I feel that the runs you score in the first six or seven weeks of the season can sometimes be the most important, because it's the toughest time," he says. "For me the ambition is to play for England. I got asked to go into the auction the last couple of years but I've not got any interest in it."
Despite being born just down the road from Lord's, for the time being it is England's other London ground that is his focus. "Surrey is the bubble I'm involved in. I'm not involved in an England bubble. This club is something that's very close to my heart and I feel like we've been given the opportunity to take a top club from the bottom and potentially make it a successful side for a long period of time. And that's very exciting."
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo