Is this the year Sussex wins a second match? We live in hope and distant memories.

Xavier Voigt-Hill presents a brief overview of Sussex Cricket over the last 15 years, and why he can't help but root for the underdogs.

Is this the year Sussex wins a second match? We live in hope and distant memories.
Source: Mat Fascione/Sussex County Cricket Club

While football high-flyers Brighton & Hove Albion headed Wembley-ward for an emphatic FA Cup semi-final showdown with Manchester United on Sunday, back home on the south coast the pro sporting picture painted a stark contrast, writes Xavier Voigt-Hill.

The oldest of England's 18 men's first-class counties, Sussex County Cricket Club, was only spared a defeat to Yorkshire at their Hove home by overnight and persistent rain rendering the ground unplayable on the fourth and final day, with the visitors stranded a mere 63 runs from their target. Their victory against Durham a fortnight ago to kick off the season had been the first time the side had won its opening round of the blue riband County Championship since 2015, and their third win overall in the competition since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among a lengthy list of players to have departed for pastures new between then and now are England regulars Phil Salt and Chris Jordan. Crawley-born stalwart Ben Brown defected to 'El Clasicoast' rivals Hampshire ahead of the last campaign, despite having two more years to run on his contract, following a shock mid-season ousting as county captain. Yet, nine months on, it was the head coach with one foot out of the door before season's end, with a statement confirming Ian Salisbury's exit issued at 11am sharp the day after the last game despite him having been conspicuously absent from duty for more than six weeks. Media reports revealed a personal dispute with a protégé as the grounds for his dismissal, leaving the team going into 2023 seeking a new boss and captain while celebrating finishing only one spot clear of a third wooden spoon in four-day competition in as many years.

It wasn't always like this. 2007, the year I discovered the club as an 11-year-old high on Ashes fever despite England falling to a 5-0 whitewash over their trip to Australia, saw Sussex claim the overall County Championship crown for the third time in as many years. Each effort anchored around Mushtaq Ahmed's leg-spin, which had been responsible for more wickets than anybody else in the country, and the ever-present trio of adopted sons in Murray Goodwin, Richard Montgomerie and captain Chris Adams who amassed more than 10,000 runs between them across the three title challenges. That same summer, over in the rambunctious 20-over format of the game, the one batter in the country to outdo Goodwin's run tally was his fresh-faced all-rounder teammate Luke Wright, whose blistering 44-ball century against Kent in Canterbury outdid the combined efforts of his 21 previous outings while jump-starting both the county's maiden run to T20 Finals Day and an illustrious career that would see him appear in 357 more games for Sussex as well as collect over a hundred England caps before retiring in November to take up a role as national selector.

Source: Xavier Voigt-Hill

Although success in the longer format has been fleeting ever since–2009's slip down to the Championship's second division proved simple to overcome as Goodwin again top-scored in a dominant campaign, though missing out on safety by just two points in 2015 has proved to be Sussex's most recent effort in the top flight–the Sharks eventually claimed T20 glory in Birmingham two years on as well as top spot in the now-defunct Pro40 competition one month later to bring the club's haul up to 10 trophies in as many seasons.

Challenges in more recent times have again centred around the game's shorter formats, though defeats on T20 Blast Finals Day in 2018 and 2021 are all Hove has to show for a fleeting big-time renaissance that featured the explosive top-order pairing of Salt and Wright accompanied by a who's who of England pace sensations–Jordan, Tymal Mills, Reece Topley, George Garton and World Cup hero Jofra Archer–as well as the prolific spin pairing of all-time Blast wicket leader Danny Briggs and world number one Rashid Khan. That gang has, however, now truly broken up–retirements aside, Jordan and Topley have decamped to Surrey, Salt to Lancashire as well as higher honours and T20 leagues around the globe, Briggs teamed up with former Sussex coach Mark Robinson to win a County Championship crown in 2021, and Garton and Archer have struggled to fulfil their grand potential, continually blighted by a conveyor of injuries and illnesses.

Source: Xavier Voigt-Hill

Sussex's barren results of the past few seasons have come with the team pursuing an aggressively youth-oriented strategy under split coaching roles between Salisbury and his former club teammate James Kirtley, with senior players fleeing and recruitment in their wake being largely driven by who remains in the academy ranks. In 2021, Horsham-raised opening batter Tom Haines found himself the leading run-scorer in the country at the age of 22 and also captaining a side with an average age shy of 20 following Brown's sacking in August. Wickets have proved incredibly hard to come by since seamer Ollie Robinson first earned senior England honours in 2021–his 17 wickets last season put him one shy of the team lead, despite featuring in only three rounds of the 14-game season–and ill fortune around the bowling attack saw several clarion calls for loan signings and 37 players wheeled out across the three county competitions.

But ask any county member where their priorities and loyalties lie and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone not insatiably hungry for their side to be at the pointy end of the County Championship fight. The win against Durham this month was notable not just for it being that rarest of entities–16 points (plus bonuses) for the martlet-crested lot–but also that they won a match without Robinson carrying the team on his back in the process. Six wickets apiece fell to new Australian import Nathan McAndrew and Eastbourne quick Henry Crocombe, who returned career-best match figures having been thrown in at the deep end with a debut at 18 in the truncated summer of 2020. Fellow Eastbourner (and mullet fanatic) Oli Carter held his nerve through a tense final morning to guide Sussex home with two wickets to spare, having himself laid a platform for victory two days prior with a century partnership alongside new skipper Cheteshwar Pujara.

Source: Dave Morton

A veteran of over 100 Test matches for his native India, Pujara arrived at the 1st Central County Ground last summer as an eleventh-hour replacement for Australia's Travis Head in one of the county's two overseas spots, and had already outpaced Head's 2021 haul before making his home bow through an unbeaten 201 on debut away to Derbyshire. To say Pujara's arrival has had a transformative impact on the side would be an understatement, with six centuries (three of them doubles) in his first nine first-class games sporting the six martlets as well another two leading the One Day Cup side as Haines faced a spell on the sidelines with a broken hand.

Under his guidance, the ragtag Sharks landed top of their group with profuse run-scoring, and a new frontline bowling threat emerging in the form of Greek international Aristides Karvelas who, having trialled around four counties before a call-up from Sussex came just three days into a T20 World Cup qualifier in Finland, collected a team-best 20 wickets in the competition at a frugal rate of 19.45 runs apiece. Also emerging a significant talent was Ali Orr, a once-obdurate opening bat who took to white-ball cricket with flamboyant aplomb, hitting 11 sixes on the way to Sussex's first-ever limited-overs double century, just five days after Pujara had set the club record with a knock of 174 against Surrey.

Pujara is joined at the helm this season by new coach Paul Farbrace, who has a family connection as Robinson's father-in-law and was also an integral part of the men's England setup as assistant coach for five years in the lead-up to their 2019 World Cup triumph. Though committed to bringing success back into the team's lexicon, and ably assisted by a trio of former internationals in Kirtley in a new role as bowling coach alongside veteran Zimbabwe batter Grant Flower and England wicketkeeper Sarah Taylor, Farbrace's is far from an enviable task. As one of the circuit's smaller venues, Hove is continually being squeezed out from hosting major non-county matches and emerging players like Salt can often feel pressure to move to top division sides based at major venues to press their cases for higher honours.

Source: Xavier Voigt-Hill

Though the squad possesses no shortage of youth–four members of the pro staff toured Australia with England's under-19 side earlier this year–such opportunities at the next levels may well arise sooner than later for the locally-raised likes of Haines and Orr, and Northern Irish off-spinner Jack Carson, recommended to the club as a youngster by former captain and England-Ireland dual-international Ed Joyce, featured alongside Haines with considerable success for England's second-string Lions side in the UAE and Sri Lanka over the off-season.

With international superstars Steve Smith and Shadab Khan already lined up for stints on the south coast as the season goes on, as well as an exciting core of prospects steadily maturing into their roles after a rollercoaster couple of years, patience among the Hove faithful will surely be wearing thin if Farbrace's charges fail to build on their undefeated start and begin to recalibrate what Sussex supporters can expect from their side. If talk of promotion is to prove any more than mere talk this year, Sussex will be keen to get that next win sooner than another year from now, with Thursday's third round seeing the squad travelling to Bristol to face a fired-up Gloucestershire side who, like Yorkshire, may well feel only the elements denied them a win in their previous outing.

Xavier Voigt-Hill is a Data Collection Executive for CricViz. Because that's not enough cricket for him he also spends all his free time at The 1st Central County Ground, so you don't have to.