Cricket: Bold Brown aims for top in hit parade: Surrey have a big-shot with the ability to break the hearts of bowlers. Rob Steen reports

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MOST sportsmen have to wait until the recession has hit their hairline before being acclaimed as a character. With barely a full season behind him, Alistair Brown evidently lacks patience.

Batting against Durham last July, the Surrey freshman took a special fancy to Ian Botham. Having punctuated an array of audacious drives with the odd mishit, he coolly repelled one particularly vengeful bouncer. The rejoinder from the irate bowler was blunt, the response sharp. 'I'm only trying to emulate my idol,' barked the young pup. More interpreter than copycat, he has certainly made an impressive start.

The advent of a full four-day Championship could be the making or breaking of many a middle-order aspirant this summer. The likelier lads will relish the breathing space. The pragmatic, if not the meek, are expected to inherit the berths. Dismissed by some as a mere slogger, Brown, believe other, shrewder judges, could well defy those expectations. Now 23, he launched his early shots in the net his father, a company secretary who worked alongside Micky Stewart at Slazenger, erected in their Beckenham back garden. These days he is paid to smash windows.

Slight of stature, strident of stroke, the philosophy is summed up by his entry in the current Cricketer's Who's Who: 'Not sure that a short leg is required on a flat, non- turning wicket, except for target practice.' A couple of hundred pages further on, Jonathan Robinson, a one- time Oval colleague, suggests that balls struck over the boundary be worth 10 runs, 'thus ensuring a 10- ball hundred for Alistair Brown at least once a season'. The nickname, 'Lordy', has a fitting ring.

Among his first seven Championship innings last season lurked evidence aplenty for prosecution and defence: two whirlwind hundreds, two golden ducks. Sceptics scoffed, romantics revelled, the latter ultimately vindicated by a scoring rate verging on a run a ball and an average bordering on 50. Three of the eight fastest centuries of the season were his.

Yorkshiremen still talk in awe of a 65-ball Sunday hundred in one savage piece of Scarborough fare. Refuting any charges of bias, Brown then repeated the dose against Lancashire last month, yet the 84 runs he plundered in consort with Monte Lynch in a 12-over splurge against the Australians were far more significant. No other partnership this summer has shown less deference to the baggy green cap.

That said, Brown's ascent was far from smooth. Despite being named the Cricket Society's All-Rounder of the Year in 1986 - those leg-breaks are now in cold storage - it was another five years before he made his first-team debut. A perceived arrogance proved a hindrance. 'I've known Lordy since he was 15 and I could never get him to come to our coaching courses,' Geoff Arnold, the Surrey coach, admitted. 'He probably didn't feel he needed it.'

'I was labelled a one-day player,' Brown recalled, 'and it set me back. When it came to discussing contracts I was always criticised for not making hundreds, for being a compulsive hooker, very showy, not good enough for first-class cricket.'

Feats at the lower level indicated otherwise. Of his three centuries for the Surrey second XI in 1991, the lowest was 171. That esteemed coach, Les Lenham, advised practising in front of the mirror, facilitating greater self-awareness. Only when David Ward broke a thumb midway through the following summer, however, was Brown entrusted with a regular Championship place.

Self-belief sprang from a rugged 56 to trump Allan Donald at Edgbaston. In his third outing, against Nottinghamshire, an injury to Darren Bicknell left an opening at the top of the order with Surrey seeking quick runs. 'When I went down the steps I felt a buzz from the crowd, that they were wondering what might happen. It felt good.' An inventive maiden century off 79 deliveries felt even better.

Cue Botham. At tea on that first day at Durham University, Brown was still awaiting his turn; galloping to three figures from 71 balls, he was 120 not out by stumps, an eventual 175 coming in better than even time. Selected for the England fringe squad, he took further strides at Lilleshall last winter, working assiduously, as Arnold put it, 'on stopping the ball in the proper manner'.

Though rarely one to encourage self-expression, Stewart, the erstwhile England and Surrey manager, refers to Brown's 'huge potential'.

'He's a better striker of the ball than Mark Lathwell,' Arnold enthused.

A biased view maybe, yet one echoed by more objective voices. 'I've got to field against Ally Brown today,' the Hampshire captain, Mark Nicholas, moaned before a pre-season friendly. 'The sooner England pick him the better.'

Of all the members of the bat pack, Brown would appear to be in the least danger of making a fatal compromise under the new regime, of sacrificing showmanship for anonymous acquisition. This will work against him, of course, yet in an age of conservatism, the libertarian is to be cherished. 'Most batsmen build from defence but with me it's the opposite. People are bound to criticise but slowly I'm proving them wrong. If I felt weak in some area I'd worry, but I don't. Luckily, no one at Surrey wants to change me.'

Anyone trying would have a battle on their hands. In his first Championship innings of the season, Brown came in with Surrey in disarray, swept to 40 before you could say 'ball- tampering' then essayed three reverse sweeps in one over off Leicestershire's Adrian Pierson and was duly caught off the last. P B H May would have clipped his ear at the very least. The subsequent output has been erratic, authority all too frequently spoiled by impetuosity, but here, clearly, is a performer determined to do it his way. 'I've got a shop window now, but I want people to feel they are getting their money's worth.'

As Botham prepares to pass on his mantle as the Beloved Entertainer, an heir - at last - is rehearsing his lines. After the stage fright apparent at Old Trafford and Lord's, the selectors could do worse than offer an early audition.

(Photograph omitted)