Sussex have new optimism for 2018.
One of the most dominant counties in cricket at the turn of the century, winning seven trophies in six years spanning 2003-2009, Sussex have had very little to celebrate since.
There was a Division Two championship and promotion back to the top tier to savour in 2010 but, following relegation back in 2015, a young talented group has flattered to deceive in recent years.
They’ve finished fourth, off the promotion pace in Division Two, for two years running and last made it to T20 Finals Day in 2012, the same year they most recently qualified for the latter stages of the domestic one-day competition.
But, in comes the much-coveted Jason Gillespie at coach, just the man to awaken a sleeping giant – Gillespie won back-to-back County Championship crowns while in charge of Yorkshire in 2014 and 2015, following promotion from the second division in his first season in charge in 2012.
Sussex aren’t a giant of Yorkshire proportions, but they’ve certainly been sleeping, and are in good need of a wake-up call. The early signs are that the players are responding.
“He’s been brilliant,” Sussex stalwart and new T20 captain, Luke Wright, told Sky Sports Cricket. “He’s Jason Gillespie – so obviously everyone has already got a big lift from having a big name come in and when you look at what he has already won.
“At Sussex we want to play young English talent, Sussex lads, use the academy. He is very much into that – we’re taking a very young squad to Warwickshire on Friday [for the first game of the season].
“He has been really calm, ultra-positive, trying to take the pressure off the young guys, which has already made a big difference and hopefully we can take that into the season.
“Whether we will win something, we will see how we go. But, probably T20 is where we look our strongest.”
The Vitality Blast is indeed Sussex’s best chance at securing their first silverware since last winning the domestic T20 comp in 2009.
Wright presides over a fearsome looking bowling attack, in particular – a who’s who of T20 franchise names – including England regulars Tymal Mills and Chris Jordan, Jofra Archer fresh from Big Bash and IPL stardom, and Afghanistan’s teenage leg-spinning sensation Rashid Khan, a shrewd overseas signing.
Mills – playing purely as a T20 specialist for Sussex, and still hopeful of an IPL deal – is excited at the prospect, telling Sky Sports Cricket: “Our bowling attack looks really strong and there is real pressure on us to deliver. But there is also a real sense of buzz and excitement around the camp because of that.
“Wrighty did the T20 captaincy a couple of years ago – he has played well over 200 games of T20 cricket, so he knows his stuff and, speaking as a bowler, he is great to play under, really calm and he trusts us.
Archer discusses his remarkable rise, his million dollar IPL deal and his Test cricket ambitions for England
“Jofra’s been brilliant for us. He was awesome last summer, in all formats. I then played with him in the Big Bash – he was my team-mate in Hobart and he was outstanding there too, and fully deserving of the IPL contract he got.
“My agent is still working hard to try and get me an IPL opportunity. I’m now at the mercy of injuries, but I’m keeping myself busy, training, keeping myself as fit as I can. If a gig becomes available, I’ll be ready.”
As well as Mills singing the praises of Archer, Wright is also excited at the prospect of captaining the young pace prodigy.
“I think this bloke is an absolute superstar,” added Wright. “He has a great mentality and just wants to play against the best.
“The bigger the challenge, the more he gets excited and the faster he bowls. I think he is going to take the IPL by storm.
“He is one of a number of options in the attack, so it’s going to be really exciting as captain to manage those guys. I’ll let them manage themselves, in fact, as they all know what they’re doing. My main job is going to be getting runs on the board for them.
“I loved the captaincy last time. It was just one of those things where I thought it was the right thing to do at the time, for everyone. But, now with a new coach coming in, things change very quickly and he sat me down and said he wanted me to do it. It was an easy decision.”
It was Gillespie’s first move as coach, bringing clarity to the captaincy for the 2018 season, installing Ben Brown as skipper for the four-day and 50-over formats, with Wright back in charge in the T20s.
Wright, Brown and Chris Nash – who has since departed for Nottinghamshire – all held office at points last season.
The loss of Nash, a virtual ever-present in the Sussex side since his debut in 2002 and another experienced head to help an emerging crop of young talent of the south coast, will be sorely felt. But who can make the step up in his place?
Delray Rawlins, a former star of the England U19s, is highly thought of and Wright is also predicting big things for their 2017 top run-scorer Luke Wells. Now 27 years old, Wells is actually one of the more senior statesmen in the side – could international recognition be on the cards?
“I might be biased, but I think he has moved on his game massively,” Wright says of Wells. “He scored huge runs last year and, if he follows it up with a similar season, I can’t see any reason why he can’t put a bit of pressure on a few to get into that England Test side.
“Especially if and when Alastair Cook finishes, they’re going to need another opener. There aren’t many people putting their hand up, but he’s probably one. I hope England take a look at him.
“As for Delray, he has been with the North-South group, and the MCC, recently. I know they like him a lot.
“He is someone who still needs to learn, he’s still raw, but he’s got great potential. We’ve also got Phil Salt, another very exciting player. Harry Finch. And, in the bowling, there’s George, Garton, Stuart Whittingham.
“There are a lot of lads who have all come through the ranks together. You’ve got to give these guys a chance and let them play.”
Left-arm quick to left-arm quick, Mills also expects big things of Garton. But, he’s not ready to be outdone on the speed gun just yet.
“George has got all the tools,” added Mills. “I have been fortunate enough to know that left-arm pace is coveted around the world and I’m sure he will get plenty of opportunities. I’m quicker though!”
With such an exciting array of young talent for 2018, and with Gillespie at the helm, Sussex could well turn out to be the early-season pace-setters.
Make sure you follow all the county cricket on Sky Sports this summer. Click here for more details.
Comment below to get involved in the debate, but please adhere to our House Rules. If you wish to report any comment, simply click on the down arrow next to the offending comment and click ‘Report’.