Sussex supporters returned to the County Ground for the first time since September 2019 last week and, just after lunch on the first day, as their team lurched to 67 for 8 against Northamptonshire, they might have wished they’d stayed at home.
As wickets tumbled, one wag in the Stand shouted: “Not much has changed has it?”
From that position on the first day, Sussex were always going to find it tough to win – and Northants duly completed a seven-wicket victory, leaving Sussex fifth in Group 3, with one win from seven games going into this week’s fixture against Yorkshire at Headingley.
That supporter’s assessment seemed a bit harsh. A lot has changed but Sussex supporters, certainly as far as the County Championship is concerned, are going to have to be patient. A complete rebuild of the four-day team has begun.
Sussex’s decision last year to put more faith in the talent in their own Academy rather than recruit from outside was a financial necessity after covid ransacked the balance sheets of all the non-Test ground counties. But in essence they decided there was no point investing money in youth development if the best of those players didn’t get an opportunity in first-class cricket.
Of the “youngsters” who have been blooded this season and last, Tom Haines has made the most progress. He scored his third hundred since the final game of 2020 against Northants and only three other batsmen in the country have scored more than his 624 runs. The extended contract he has just signed with Sussex is fully deserved.
Haines was only 17 when he made his debut at the end of the 2016 season – and it was only last year that he became a regular. In between times, he learned what he needed to do to become a fully fledged county cricketer, with the help of the coaches at Sussex, which means performing consistently at a good level.
Tom Clark was taken out of the team against Yorkshire this week after playing in seven games and scoring just one fifty. At 19, he is in the veteran category when you consider that his replacement at Headingley is 16-year-old Dan Ibrahim, a batting all-rounder who has been in the Sussex system since the age of ten. He is the second 16-year-old to make a first-class debut for Sussex in the past year, after James Coles in the final match of 2020.
At the top of the order against Yorkshire was Ali Orr, like Ibrahim a product of St Bede’s School in Eastbourne where the cricket coach is former Sussex captain Alan Wells.
Orr is only 20 but has also been developed in the youth pathway. Coach Ian Salisbury believes they are all good enough to perform at this level and will back them to the hilt.
It’s conceivable that in five years Sussex’s top order could comprise entirely of home-grown talent in Orr, Haines, Clark and Ibrahim. Archie Lenham, the son of former Sussex opener Neil, is another close to getting an opportunity.
Most players I have spoken to over the years reckon they aren’t fully fledged pros until they are 23 or 24. Only occasionally do prodigies like Ollie Pope and Zak Crawley – now both England regulars – emerge and look the real deal while still in their teens.
Even in the days of plenty 15 years ago, when Sussex were inspired by a captain born and bred in Derbyshire, a Pakistan leg-spinner and a prolific batsman raised in Zimbabwe and Perth, there was always an extra cheer at Hove for the likes of James Kirtley, Jason Lewry, Robin Martin-Jenkins and Matt Prior, the home-grown players in a successful team. There’s nothing a Hove crowd like more than seeing their own come through.
Who’s to say that in five to ten years Sussex won’t enjoy more success with a team made up almost entirely of local lads?
Some might not make it while others could also emerge who make the transition from youthful promise to top professional quicker than their peers.
There might be some short-term frustration at a lack of results, but “stick with it” seems to be the message from Hove. The future looks bright.
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