Sussex’s red-ball coach Ian Salisbury smiled broadly when I suggested to him ahead of the new season that a cheeky fiver on Sussex to get promoted in the County Championship at odds of 20/1 might not be a bad investment. Salisbury isn’t allowed to bet of course, but even if he were I suspect he would keep his money in his pocket.
It’s not that he isn’t hugely excited about how his team might do this season ahead of next Thursday’s opening Division Two match against Nottinghamshire at Hove but he’s also pragmatic. Expecting a team that finished rock-bottom to win seven or eight games out of 14 (last season they won once) is a bit of a stretch.
When he assumed joint coaching responsibilities with James Kirtley at the end of 2020, Salisbury emphasised was that there was no quick fix, with the county committed to giving opportunities to home-grown players. Indeed, he predicted that it would take three seasons to turn Sussex’s fortunes in the Championship around.
So, under that blueprint, this is year two of the three-year plan. The players developed in the county’s own academy system who got their chance in 2021 will certainly have benefited for the experience and in opening batter Ali Orr, the precocious all-rounder Dan Ibrahim, off-spinner Jack Carson and leg-spinner Archie Lenham it’s clear that Sussex have developed some special talents. Others may take longer to come through, but the basics are there.
But promises of jam tomorrow will only go so far with the denizens of the Hove deckchairs. You don’t have to be a greybeard to remember the days when Sussex were serial trophy winners and while no one is expecting a return to the glory days any time soon they are entitled to expect a bit better than the last few years.
Interestingly, Chris Adams – who led the county to so much of that success – has returned to sit on the cricket committee. Salisbury and captain Tom Haines don’t have the luxury of fielding a team full of proven players like Adams did, but they have recognised the need to add some experience to a callow roster.
There was little Salisbury or Kirtley could do to stop Phil Salt or Chris Jordan from leaving in the winter. Neither were even in post when the pair turned down new contracts, but Sussex have recruited shrewdly to fill those and other gaps in the squad. The Indian batsman Chet Pujara, who will make his debut against Notts, providing his visa is granted in time, is embarking on his fourth stint with an English county. His record in those spells – 988 runs at an average of 29.93 from 36 innings including three hundreds and three half-centuries – is modest but there is no doubting his talent.
The Pakistan wicketkeeper-batsman Mohammad Rizwan is No 1 ranked in T20 cricket, but he has swapped the IPL for a first stint in county cricket. With a Test average of 42.76 he is much more than a one-day matchwinner and all being well he will debut at Derby on Thursday 14 April.
It’s a place all-rounder Fynn Hudson-Prentice knows well, having spent four years there before returning to Sussex at the tail-end of last season. They are different players of course, but Hudson-Prentice should offer the same reassuring presence in the middle order as Ben Brown, who has moved to Hampshire.
Steve Finn’s pedigree can’t be questioned either. He was the quickest England bowler to 100 Test wickets and was part of three Ashes-winning squads. It seems Finn has been around forever, but he is only 32 and desperate to revive his first-class career after playing just two Championship games for Middlesex last season. His fast-bowling experience will be invaluable to young bowlers like Henry Crocombe, Jamie Atkins and Sean Hunt.
Salisbury expects Ollie Robinson to be training again next week after missing England’s series in West Indies with a back issue and he is likely to play several games in the next few weeks. The chances of Jofra Archer running down the Hove slope with a red ball are more remote, but as he recovers from elbow surgery there is every prospect that Archer will play a part in the T20 Blast campaign when that starts in late May.
When Sussex announced that Haines has been appointed Championship captain on an interim basis, it suggested a short-term appointment, but Salisbury stressed that all being well he will be in charge for the whole season. The caveat is whether captaincy affects Haines’ crucial role at the top of the batting order. Last season no one scored more Championship runs than the talented left-hander and when he led the team it didn’t affect his appetite for remorseless run scoring. If he starts 2022 where he left off, there’s every chance that any future absence is because he’s playing Test cricket for England.
Salisbury is happy for his side to go under the radar. The least he and Sussex supporters expect is a sizeable improvement on last season. I don’t think they will be disappointed and even if he won’t have a small wager on promotion, there’s nothing to stop me!
Follow Bruce Talbot on Twitter @brucetalbot1.