A few short weeks ago, amid the ever-present high-octane action of the Indian Premier League, the cricketing public turned its attention to Sussex. Now, this doesn’t happen very often. Previously formidable, Sussex County Cricket Club has endured a decade of disappointment. Currently languishing in Division Two of the County Championship, the club won just one four-day match last season and slumped to second-last.
So, in January, when the club announced that Steve Smith, the former world number one batter with 30 test hundreds to his name, would be joining them for three matches in May, supporters were surprised to say the least.
The move caused a stir and not just with the Sussex faithful. Many online were keen to criticise its short-lived nature, arguing that a three-match stint allowed the Aussie to find form before the Ashes while being too short to benefit the county game in any meaningful way.
Others disagreed. The former England skipper Michael Vaughan said: “It’s exactly what the county game requires. Having one of the greatest ever players in a Sussex dressing room can only be a positive.”
Sussex head coach Paul Farbrace said: “We are doing English cricket a massive favour. We want to keep county cricket open and strong.”
So, one month, three matches and several screams of “no run” later, how did it go? Steve Smith, the world’s best bat in the county championship. Did he score 500 runs? Demolish every county attack in sight? Find unstoppable form right before the Ashes? Well, no, no and possibly.
Smith batted once in each of his three Sussex matches, scoring 122 runs at an average of 40.67, with one fifty. A decent, if somewhat underwhelming showing.
In his first innings, Smith looked scratchy, playing and missing a number of times before crunching a couple of trademark drives. He fell for 30, pinned by Josh Tongue in the first of three lbw decisions that Smith would be on the wrong end of, two of them dubious, one plumb.
After departing for three in his next match, Smith bounced back with a dogged 89 and took two wickets in his final fixture by the sea. There were lightsabre leaves and crisp clips-a-plenty as the Australian looked every bit the batter who has so regularly dominated world cricket.
One thing the innings wasn’t was flashy. There certainly won’t be any “Baz-ball” biffing from Smith this summer. Striking at only 48.83, Smith was exceedingly patient, leaving ball after ball on his way to fifty.
So, returning to the original question of “how did it go?” Well, it went very well for Smith. By the end of his three fixtures, the Australian had achieved what he set out to achieve – finding form in little old England.
This was particularly clear in last week’s World Test Championship final. On the biggest stage, Smith made a match-winning 121 runs off 268 balls in the first innings. Dismantling a star-studded Indian bowling attack, Smith looked every bit the assured, confident batter he had been in his final Sussex fixture. It seems his time in Hove paid off.
So, a successful spell for the Aussie, but what about Sussex? The move was a two-way-deal after all. Smith gets three matches to acclimatise in England and Sussex get the world’s best batter, along with all the runs and experience that he brings.
To some degree, it worked. For one month, Sussex’s young crop of bats trained and played side-by-side with an all-time great. At a time when the 18 counties are rarely able to select their own international stars, Smith’s involvement could prove pivotal for the development of Sussex’s young bats.
His impact was even somewhat apparent in his final match, with 22-year-old opener Ali Orr adopting his extravagant style of leave.
Yet, the Hove faithful have reason to feel hard done by too.
Prior to Smith’s arrival, fellow Australian Nathan McAndrew led the Sussex bowling attack. The 6ft paceman had been a revelation, taking 15 wickets at an average of 20.60 in his three matches, including two stellar five-wicket hauls.
However, County Championship rules dictate that each side can select only two overseas players. So, with Smith entering the fray and run-machine captain Cheteshwar Pujara claiming the other overseas spot, Sussex were forced to drop the magnificent McAndrew.
Without him, they lacked firepower. In Smith’s first two fixtures, Sussex came within two and four wickets of victory. Agonising margins considering just how valuable wins are in the championship.
In those same fixtures, Smith contributed scores of 30 and 3.
So, fans were left to wonder. Had McAndrew featured instead, would Sussex have won?
Two wickets from victory, Sussex would surely rather have the consistently dangerous McAndrew over Smith, who contributed only three runs in the match.
All things considered, Smith’s seaside sabbatical may well have cost Sussex at least one, if not two victories.
Now, it’s not the Aussie’s fault that Sussex lack bowling depth, nor is he to blame for the County Championships restrictions on overseas players or even the ECB’s insistence on resting Ollie Robinson for crucial championship matches.
Yet, in the short term at least, it seems that Sussex drew the short straw.
Only time will tell what influence Smith’s month in Hove had on his Sussex team-mates. Should Ali Orr and co become world-beating, international stars, and credit their success to Smith’s wisdom, I’m sure Sussex supporters will forget a couple of draws from years gone by.
There were other benefits worth mentioning too. For the price of a county ticket, supporters from Sussex, Worcestershire and Leicestershire got to witness a world-class bat go about his business. Crowds were certainly bigger than usual too, as punters gathered in to see for themselves, Steve Smith, live in the flesh.
As for Smith himself, we wait with bated breath to see just how acclimatised he really is to English conditions. Australian supporters will certainly hope he replicates his form from Ashes past. Smith averages 55.59 in tests on British soil, with six centuries.
Having claimed the World Test Championship crown last week at the Oval, Australia are due to play a further five tests in England over the next two months, with the Ashes starting tomorrow (Friday 16 June) at Edgbaston.