Brown rewarded for purple patch

A rejuvenated Surrey batsman is ready to take on the world, says Derek Pringle
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By many people's reckoning, Alistair Brown is at least a year behind schedule - and it shows. The brutal manner in which the Surrey batsman has set about the bowling this season, which has made thrilling box office, suggests a man no longer willing to wait for his destiny to be shaped by others.

It has also paid off, Brown being named in England's Texaco Trophy squad for the three 50-over games against India starting tomorrow. But should he feel moved to thank anyone, then Sanath Jayasuriya, Sri Lanka's savage opener, ought to be first on his list. After all, it was Jayasuriya's unsubtle demolition of England's bowlers in the World Cup group match at Faisalabad that finally opened sceptical eyes to the value of positive hitting.

In 1993, this correspondent was fortunate enough to play in a six-a-side competition in Singapore where both men played. Brown, his appetite whetted by the international competition, managed to eclipse the Sri Lankan, smiting one enormous six well over a hundred yards on to the steps of the old town hall. Two and a bit years later, as Brown gets his first chance, Jayasuriya is a global household name.

If the two differ at all, it is in execution rather than intent, with Brown sometimes swinging himself off his feet trying to clear the stands, when a firm chip over the in-field would suffice.

Mind you, Brown, now 26, has rarely played any differently. Indeed, the sureness of self and the high Victor Trumperish swing of a bat intent on murderous deeds were both in evidence long before his first-class debut back in 1992. That was the year he announced himself as a rare talent, scoring three of the top 10 fastest hundreds of the season; a feat that managed to split scrutinisers into opposing camps. You either marvelled at an Ally Brown innings or tut-tutted with those who felt it could not last.

Unfortunately for Brown, Grahame Clinton, his coach at Surrey last year, appeared to fall among the latter. Clinton dropped Brown after a drawn game against Glamorgan. Surrey were bottom of the Championship table at the time and Brown, trying to win the game, had got out in a run chase for 92. His absence from the following game at Lord's had the Middlesex bowlers dancing jigs of delight in the Long Room.

Broken lines of communication between coach and player are common complaints in any sport. By tempering Brown's risk-taking, Clinton clearly felt he could turn Brown into a consistently better player; a common enough misapprehension for those who feel they need to justify themselves - particularly to employers - in terms of adjustments made to others.

But tinkering, however well-intentioned, can destroy spirit and what goes on in the mind is probably the most crucial part of a player's make- up. And what had gone on in Brown's head - and has now thankfully returned - is a cocky delight in humiliating bowlers and a flair for hitting the ball hard, straight and often - a penchant Clinton's perverse, although well- meaning, kick up the backside almost destroyed.

"Being dropped a couple of times without explanation last year began to affect me," Brown says. "My confidence was as low as I can remember it and I even started to doubt myself.

"By the end of last season, I couldn't wait to put my cricket kit into the attic and do something else." In fact, he spent the winter coaching and talking cricket in schools around Surrey and playing football at the weekends to keep fit.

It did not fill Brown with any confidence, either, when he heard Surrey were proposing to sign the South African, Brian McMillan, and he raised the situation when he met with Dave Gilbert, the Australian who has replaced Clinton as Surrey's coach this season.

"When I first arrived, I sat down with all the players on a one-to-one basis," Gilbert, a former Test bowler, said. "What struck me most about Alistair, considering his excellent record and reputation, was that he seemed very concerned about where he stood in the scheme of things."

This surprised Gilbert, who told him he was an integral member of the side. "Most of us watching the Sri Lankan openers in the World Cup liked what we saw. Now the same rules apply over here, I thought we could use Ally and David Ward like that. There is a licence there and, over the past few seasons, he's used it in Sunday League cricket. I just hope it's going to be his brief for England too."

Gilbert's genial informality is attributed to providing much of Surrey's sparkle this season, and Brown is the first to admit the Australian helped him to "come back hungry." Even Chris Lewis - one of four Surrey players in the England squad - is reported to be happy, merrily taking his fair share of stick in the dressing-room.

So far, the buzz has become infectious and, along with Gilbert's license to be positive, has certainly helped Brown in his role as a pinch hitter. His form in the early Benson and Hedges Cup games, with a quickfire hundred against Sussex and two other scores above fifty, has been irrepressible.

"I'm feeling strangely relaxed about the whole thing at the moment," he said, while awaiting his turn to launch into a golf ball - he plays off 12 - at a team-mate's benefit event.

"Being at The Oval for the first game will definitely help, especially as I now change next to Thorpey [Graham Thorpe]," he said. "When I got picked, he phoned me up and said: 'I'm glad to see some of my luck's rubbed off on you, then.' I thought: 'Yeah, perhaps I should have sat there sooner'."