The blame game has started but Friday’s debacle is on the players
Before the game against Gloucestershire yesterday (Friday 10 June), skipper Ravi Bopara probably felt fifth in the Vitality Blast was where they deserved to be after seven games.
After losing the first two, Sussex won three on the bounce, only to lose the next two, although they suffered no worse a fate than every other team in the south group against a very strong Surrey at the Oval last Wednesday.
Halfway through the group stage, and with four of their remaining games to come at Hove, Bopara would have felt confident of guiding the Sharks into the quarter-finals, especially as his two-gun overseas players, Rashid Khan and Mohammad Rizwan, are back for the final six matches.
He might have thought it was going to be his night when he asked off-spinner Harrison Ward to bowl the first over against Gloucestershire, even though he’d never bowled in T20 before. His first delivery was a full toss. Obligingly, Miles Hammond drove it into Bopara’s hands at mid-off.
Two other bowling changes in the powerplay brought immediate success as Obed McCoy and Steve Finn took wickets with their first ball and although Glenn Phillips led a fightback in the second half of their innings, Phillips admitted afterwards that Gloucestershire “had left a few runs out there” in scoring 145 for six.
Sussex were 118 for two in the 14th over with Tom Alsop playing superbly and Fynn Hudson-Prentice offering good support. They had put on 69 together with few alarms. So far so comfortable.
I can only describe what happened in the next half hour as the most embarrassing collective brain-fade I have seen from a Sussex side in more than 30 years reporting on the county, as eight wickets fall for just 23 runs in 37 balls of witless batting.
Alsop and Hudson-Prentice can be forgiven. When they were dismissed in the space of three balls, Sussex only needed 28 to win off 36 deliveries. All their team-mates had to do was knock it into the gaps and run singles and twos. Easy.
Instead, the rest of the batsmen – with the honourable exception of 17-year-old Archie Lenham – seemed to indulge in a competition to see who could get out in the most crass way. It was a display which would have shamed Sussex’s under-11s.
For what it’s worth, McCoy’s horrible hoick across the line at a straight ball from Zac Chappell won it hands down, but there were several other contenders.
Even then, and with their last pair at the crease, Sussex needed nine runs off the last over and still had a chance.
But Finn went for broke and a big top edge nestled in James Bracey’s gloves before the Gloucestershire wicketkeeper set off on a victory lap followed by his exultant – and probably disbelieving – team-mates.
In football terms, Sussex had been 4-1 up with 15 minutes to go and lost 5-4.
Now, the majority of T20 attendees at Hove – and Friday was the first sell-out of the season incidentally – don’t necessarily go to immerse themselves in the nuances of the game. They want to see the ball disappearing into the stands, the orange stumps light up and spectacular fielding.
For a lot of them, I suspect that the inquest into Sussex’s ignominious collapse would have concluded by the time they reached the first set of traffic lights on the way home.
Others, though, see it as another example of the slow but steady decline that has been going on at Hove for a few years now and which shows no sign of ending.
To his credit, Bopara pulled no punches afterwards, describing it as the worst performance he’d seen in more than 400 T20 games.
In the short-term, Sussex probably need to win five of their remaining six games to reach the knockouts. Rizwan, Rashid and Luke Wright will all be back for their next game against Essex on Friday and there ought to be a recall for their most experienced T20 bowler Will Beer as well. But it still a big ask and if Sussex fall short their season will effectively be over before the end of June.
There is a brief return to Championship action this week against Glamorgan in Cardiff, where Sussex last won a four-day match 14 months and 18 games ago.
There have been some green shoots of recovery in red-ball cricket this season, despite the lack of wins, but in whatever format four-day cricket is played next season Sussex look like being in the bottom division.
Needless to say social media and the fans’ messageboard weren’t slow in coming forward with their remedies in the wake of Friday’s defeat and the wider issues confronting Sussex, the favourite being a mass cull of coaches and administrators.
I can’t believe for one minute that coaches Ian Salisbury and James Kirtley, director of cricket Keith Greenfield and chief executive Rob Andrew aren’t concerned. But the failure of experienced players to do the job they are paid to do under pressure can hardly be pinned on them. Friday night was on the players, no one else.
Neither can they be held responsible for the raft of injuries that have afflicted the squad in both red and white-ball formats or that international cricket is catching up after covid and overseas players’ availability is restricted.
But all those issues tend to be exacerbated when you’re not winning games, and Sussex have been in that rut for a while now.
Chairman Jon Filby only took over in March and has a big in-tray, not least making sure Sussex’s voice is heard when the latest discussions on the future of the domestic take place later this summer.
But he has his ear to the ground and can sense the mood among members and supporters. It already feels like another year of minimal progress on the pitch.
And if that trend continues, even Sussex supporters with a more balanced view of things will feel that the only course open to Filby and the cricket committee is a fresh start.
Follow Bruce on Twitter @brucetalbot1.
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