There was general surprise when Rory Hamilton-Brown was appointed as captain of Surrey. Those who were not surprised were mortified. He was 22, he had played six Championship matches, and those were for Sussex.
Wet behind the ears? The Atlantic Ocean was sweeping in at one lug hole and the Pacific was swarming at the other ready to engulf him. The general feeling was that Chris Adams, the club's recently installed director of cricket, had over-reached himself and been too smart by half. The veteran Mark Ramprakash, the side's most accomplished batsman, barely disguised his view that he thought it misguided.
Surrey then lost their first two games and Hamilton-Brown scored 64 runs in four innings. At that moment the folly of Adams and his protégé seemed apparent. Surrey, one of the great names of English cricket, were being brought low. Those who see the county disparagingly as the Brown Hatters, the arrogant swaggers of English cricket, thought they had it coming to them.
Two years on and the astonishing elevation seems to have been a visionary masterstroke. "I'm not going to sit here and say it's been easy, being booed off the pitch and going into members' meetings," Hamilton-Brown said yesterday at The Oval. "It couldn't have been a worse start. The toughest thing for me was walking into the dressing room, standing up and although I didn't want to admit it, kind of thinking in my own head, 'Why are these blokes listening to me?' But it was my job to be man enough to stand up every day and not shy away from it.
"I felt that was what I had to do because I had been entrusted with the job. They were the hardest moments. If I had got 0 and we had been bowled out for 120, I made sure I stood up and spoke. In any job which is quite high pressure, if you have the worst at the beginning things can only get better. So I've always got that in my memory bank to appreciate how it can be and where it's gone. I'm not going to sit here and say it's been a breeze."
Hamilton-Brown, still only 24, responded to the initial disaster, which is what losses to Derbyshire and his former county, Sussex, amounted to, by scoring a hundred. If nothing else it bought him time. Last season Surrey won promotion to the First Division of the Championship by winning five of their last six matches. They were also Pro40 champions, winning 12 from 13 games, including a rousing performance in the final at Lord's when their captain made a dashing 78 from 62 balls. They begin their defence of that trophy with a match at The Oval tonight against Somerset who they swept aside at Lord's last September.
"There was a genuine feeling last year that we were walking out playing with a bunch of best mates and I have never experienced that with any team I have played in," he said. "In a big club it's sometimes harder and it's something we pride ourselves hugely on. The big thing is the team, caring about each other, spending as much time with each other as we can, little things, giving someone throw-downs when you don't particularly feel like it."
The water that was behind the ears has flowed under the bridge. By now Ramps has been won over. Adams and Hamilton-Brown have made their point and if they were to win the championship title this summer they would make it again. But Hamilton-Brown's horizons extend beyond Surrey. His goal, as it always has been, is to play Test cricket for England. He appears to have fallen off the selectors' radar since his move to Surrey. Perhaps they too were stunned by the sheer chutzpah of it and have not yet recovered.
Hamilton-Brown had a low-key first season when he averaged below 30. But last summer he approached 40, scored 1,000 runs and did so after a bravura decision at the start of the summer. Seeing the county in trouble at the top of the order, he announced that he would open. For someone who sees himself as a middle-order strokeplayer this was as bold an option as bringing him to Surrey in the first place. But he stuck at it and by the end of the summer his reward came with the promotion as Second Division champions.
"In my head that first year, having just come off a Lions winter, I knew my England ambitions were probably going to take a step back for a year or so," he said. "I knew I couldn't expect to keep on the same performance level that I had got to over four years. But I also felt that when I adjusted to the job it would make me a better player in the long run and prepare me better. I'm desperate to play for England.
"But the fact of the matter is my mindset is here at Surrey, winning trophies, scoring runs, being a team player and if we keep winning trophies and I keep scoring runs hopefully that will come."
For someone still of such tender years he is remarkably composed as well as quietly self-assured, as presumably he had to be to take Adams' offer in late 2009. They are much different, Hamilton-Brown the urbane southern public schoolboy and Adams the hard-nosed east midlander – and they have differing views on the game.
But from the start Adams did what some feared he might not: he let Hamilton-Brown be captain in every sense. There was no interference. It remains to be seen whether he can persuade the selectors that he is a good enough player for further elevation. This year, back in the middle order where he more truly belongs, is one where he might catch their eye. He might have done so already with fifties in each of Surrey's first three Championship matches.
Hamilton-Brown has done the hardest thing in sport, in life. He has proved people wrong. "The captaincy doesn't mean you're leading those blokes," he said. "But when you feel people start to comment within the dressing room or you hear comments from people who have heard someone's wife say what a fantastic job you're doing as a captain you start to get a feel that there has been a switch here from 'what does he want us to do?' to 'this is our captain'. I feel like I am the captain and the leader of the side."Reuse content