Single-minded Surrey revelling in role of the unloved

Aggressive style of Adam Hollioake's side wins few friends but enough points to suggest they will retain County Championship

Tiger Woods should revel in his popularity and relish the taste of every last ripple of applause because if anything can be sure in this great sportsman's future it is that it will not last, not this side of the Atlantic at any rate. Winners are OK here, so long as they do not propose to make it a habit.

Tiger Woods should revel in his popularity and relish the taste of every last ripple of applause because if anything can be sure in this great sportsman's future it is that it will not last, not this side of the Atlantic at any rate. Winners are OK here, so long as they do not propose to make it a habit.

Take Manchester United. No current English football club is more successful; nor less loved. County cricket can put forward a similar case: Surrey. Last season's Championship title was their first for 28 years but already they are widely despised; mainly because they look like keeping the pennant this year as well.

Last week's thrashing of Leicestershire at Guildford, their second demolition of the 1998 champions in the space of 12 days, was their fifth Championship win in a row, a sixth out of seven matches during a run broken only by a defeat at Derby that illustrates perfectly the hostility felt for them around the shires.

Derbyshire, you will recall, won the match but lost eight points for their trouble, judged to have prepared an unfit pitch. The local view, in a nutshell, was that had Surrey not been such a cry-baby bunch of mardy southern boys who did not like it up 'em then nothing would have happened.

What has happened since has confirmed that the 231-run defeat suffered at the hands of Durham in May - a cause for whooping and hollering well beyond the Riverside - was merely a spring blip. Indeed, the last five results make ominous reading, with Somerset beaten by an innings and 213 runs, Hampshire by 120 runs, Leicestershire by an innings and 178, Yorkshire by 203 runs and Leicestershire again by 10 wickets.

They lead the First Division by 13 points, not by any means an unassailable lead but one which may be unlucky for their rivals. Having played 11 of their 18 fixtures, Surrey sit out the next Championship round, starting on Friday but, as fortune would have it, rivals Lancashire and Yorkshire use up their game in hand against each other.

Clearly, the result at Headingley could be critical, a draw of no use to either side and it will not have gone down well either in Leeds or Manchester that England plan an extra training day on Monday of next week, ahead of the resumption of the Test series against West Indies, depriving the Roses match perhaps of half a dozen players.

So what do Surrey possess that gives them an edge? For a start, the two qualities, arguably, that English cricket too often lacks, namely aggression and self-belief, characteristics inherent in their significantly Australian-born captain, Adam Hollioake, that seem to spread through the team. There is desire, too, as put into words by Martin Bicknell, in the wake of his extraordinary 16-wicket match-winning performance at Guildford, who said that there would be a sense of failure in the dressing-room were Surrey to finish only second.

It is to their benefit that neither Adam Hollioake nor his brother, Ben, is currently required by England, and especially so that Alex Tudor is fighting to win a recall. Tudor, with 27 first-class wickets so far, forms, with the persistently overlooked Bicknell, as potent a new ball attack as any contender could need. Add to that pairing the match-winning spin combination of Saqlain Mushtaq and Ian Salisbury and Surrey have bowling resources of unrivaled quality and balance.

With Alec Stewart so often absent and Graham Thorpe now likely to be now that he is fit again, Surrey's batting is a bit chancy, dependent too often on Alistair Brown to bail them out with some extraordinary feat. There is depth, however. This season, 10 players have made a Championship fifty.

But the key remains to bowl sides out. Bicknell's exploits at Guildford, taking him past 50 for the season, confirmed his reputation as the best fast bowler not to be an England regular, his two Test caps in 1993 seemingly to be the extent of his collection. Meanwhile, Saqlain, with 44 so far, is only just coming into his own as pitches at last become hard and dry.

Yorkshire, still in the race following their defeat of Somerset, were trounced at The Oval largely because they lack a top-class spinner. Lancashire, not yet seeing the best of Chris Schofield, have two decent exponents of the art in Gary Keedy, the orthodox left-armer, and Gary Yates, their off-spinner, who bowled out Durham between them to seal Lancashire's win on Saturday. They go to The Oval themselves on Wednesday week, when more will be learned about their capabilities and, perhaps, the destination of the title.

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