Idle boasts can come back to haunt you. Surrey may have spent the last few seasons bobbing around the bottom of the Second Division but the idea that they're "the Manchester United of cricket", a questionable claim that first reared its head over 10 years ago, persists. Rory Hamilton-Brown, the club's captain, is the latest to invoke English football's most popular side. "As a club, Surrey is the Manchester United of cricket – there is no hiding behind that – but we don't have that status on the field," he said at the beginning of the season.
Putting aside the inevitably unflattering comparisons – if any cricket team is Manchester United, they're more likely to play in the IPL – it is undeniable that Surrey are one of the biggest clubs in this country. In terms of tradition, success, income and the amount of scorn they attract from rival supporters, they are right at the top. In terms of their position in the County Championship, as Hamilton-Brown acknowledges, they're almost on the bottom.
After two games of the season, The Brown Caps are above only Essex. It is very early days of course – every county in the Second Division can still entertain serious hopes of promotion – but having invested heavily since Chris Adams took over as director of cricket at the end of 2008 and achieved little, the pressure is on. Surrey enjoyed great success at the turn of the century (they were champions as recently as 2002) but since then things have turned sour.
The team's performances in their two games to date demonstrate where their strengths and weaknesses lie. With the addition of Zander de Bruyn and Tom Maynard in the off-season, the batting is strong: they racked up 575 for 7 declared against Glamorgan last week with both new men scoring centuries. The bowling, though, does not look so formidable: Jade Dernbach and Stuart Meaker are potentially a fearsome pace attack but Surrey are yet to take 20 wickets in a match.
Today they cross the Thames to face their London rivals, Middlesex. On the surface, Neil Dexter's side have a lot in common with Surrey, having flattered to deceive in recent seasons. Unlike Surrey, though, they have begun the season in fine form, winning both of their matches. Also, unlike Surrey, they have a bowling unit that is firing on all cylinders: thus far, they've dismissed their opponents (Essex and Derbyshire) for 115, 215, 154 and 403.
Much of the good work has been done by a trio composing Tim Murtagh, once of Surrey, England's Steve Finn and the South African Gareth Berg. The latter in particular is in sensational form. He's taken 12 wickets at an average of less than 10 and also chipped in with a crucial 80 to help Middlesex to victory over Derbyshire last week.
Berg, though, is not the most important South African at Lord's. Captain Dexter, who first came to England when he joined Graham Ford's Protea-heavy Kent squad, also learnt his cricket there. His appointment last season raised a few eyebrows – it was his first captaincy role since his schooldays in Durban – but it is a move that appears to be paying off.
Meanwhile, the jury is still out on Hamilton-Brown. Appointed the youngest ever Surrey captain before last season, he wasn't immediately able to unite the team. That may have changed: the Surrey side has been transformed of late and the likes of Maynard, Meaker and Steve Davies are far less likely to rock the boat than older hands. Nonetheless, the pressure is on: after all, Manchester United don't settle for second best.