County previews April 7, 2016

Dynamo Wright aiming to re-energise Sussex

Entrusted with the captaincy in all three formats, Luke Wright will demand high standards and unstinting effort to make the sun shine again in Hove

Luke Wright will take charge of Sussex in all three formats this season © Getty Images

Feed off Luke Wright's energy and optimism and it is tempting to believe even at your lowest moment that anything in life is possible. Donald Trump could be nice to women, Panama would still be famous only for its canal and, yes, Sussex are about to emphatically arrest a decline which last season saw them relegated in the Championship, finish bottom of their group in the Royal London Cup and fail to reach Finals Day when David Willey gave them a pummelling in a home quarter-final.

Sussex's recovery, it has to be said, is by far the most likely of the three, but even this possibility is far from automatic. Worcestershire, Essex, perhaps even Kent, all have potential to question their favourites' rating in a Championship Division Two season where only the top side is promoted.

Sussex face questions. An ambitious cricket budget last summer brought failure and a heavy loss. A fine stalwart, Mike Yardy, has retired and James Anyon has followed with the season only a few days away, an always vulnerable fast bowler's body unable to take any more. Most jarring to all at Hove was the tragic death of Matthew Hobden in Scotland as he celebrated New Year, robbing the county of a promising fast bowler and a fine companion.

Time then for one of county cricket's most positive figures to take charge: a man who openly accepts that "selfishness" can naturally take hold when a player is trying to forge an international career or make decent money in IPL or the Big Bash, but when that career is as good as spent it can be replaced by a powerful desire to return the favour to the county side that provided their opportunity. As with Ian Bell, skipper of Warwickshire this summer, it is good to see England players make this transition.

Wright is already asserting himself, so critical of Sussex's weak fielding last season and the excessive sense of entitlement amongst some younger professionals that it can be seen as a tacit criticism of the faltering later period under Mark Robinson's 11-year reign as head coach.

An abiding memory of Wright: a training session somewhere up country in India; a sultry day, a low point of the tour, the coach Duncan Fletcher ignoring the media in the lift, yet always Wright's sheer exuberance in training. Chase this; catch that. Find the most enthusiastic ball-chasing dog on the planet and his tail would droop with exhaustion long before Wright would be spent. Sussex, valuing such energy, have made him captain in all three formats - quite rare these days - inviting the suspicion that even he could be weary by September.

"People moaning about not playing when they are averaging 30 in the seconds - that's not good enough. Come to me when you're averaging 80 in the second team"

"I think my kids will break me before these boys break me," he said. "It's going to be something I've got to manage but I try to move on quite quickly and even as a player I've never been a kit thrower or anything like that. I'm pretty good at letting things go once I get home. Glass of red and move on."

Ed Joyce, his predecessor, a heavy county run-scorer and international with Ireland and England, probably found it harder to let go as Sussex's marked decline in Robinson's last season as coach took hold. "Ed's a deeper thinker," Wright smiled. A mid-season defeat against Durham at Arundel, when Ajmal Shahzad's comeback lasted only four overs, and a loss against Hampshire at Hove - the team who eventually condemned Sussex to Division Two - were two critical junctures.

"Talking to Joycey when we were struggling I knew potentially he might step down, but I wasn't exactly encouraging the lads to nick off so we went down," he said. "I knew that if the captaincy came up, I was willing to listen if they wanted to talk to me and luckily they did."

County cricket is packed with off-season New Zealand players this summer, some identified as T20 joy bringers such as Brendon McCullum and Mitchell McClenaghan at Middlesex, some like Tom Latham around in all formats for Kent for the bulk of the season. Ross Taylor is in the second mould, signed until late July after Steve Magoffin, the veteran Australian metronome, secured a UK passport and freed up an overseas spot. Wright expects Taylor to be an influential figure.

"It's my first time of really doing it full on, and I'm learning on the job as well. Ross Taylor is one of the best people to learn off and I think bowlers should be setting their fields most of the time anyway. If I've got to set them then it's a bit of a worry to be honest."

Another Kiwi, Stephen Fleming, coach of Melbourne Stars' in the Big Bash, has also had a major influence on Wright's approach. "He was amazing: in terms of a T20 coach, he was almost the best I've ever worked with. He was so relaxed but with man management and planning for games he was very, very good."

But to propose a player who could have most influence on Sussex's cricket this season it is hard to look past Danny Briggs. While Wright exudes energy, Briggs floats around, a gentle, slender surveyor of the scene. If there is bitterness about his move from Hampshire, he is not one to show it. Hampshire were variously taken by the all-round talents of Liam Dawson (so, too, were England in naming their World T20 squad) and the legspin promise of Mason Crane, Briggs lost his place in all but T20 and had the nerve to request a move a year before his contract ended.

There was a time when Briggs' graceful left-arm spin would have been predicted to figure in the World T20 that has recently departed India's shores; he postponed his wedding in 2012 to join England's squad for the tournament in Sri Lanka. But the last of his six T20Is came in Hobart more than two years ago - a young player not quite battle-hardened enough to make it.

For all that, he has colossal experience, at 24. Hampshire have figured in six successive Twenty20 Finals Days and Briggs has been at the heart of that record. Wright is convinced that Sussex have signed a bowler who can change the shape of their season.

"Danny is a great signing. He's one of those players that I have found an absolute pain in the backside playing in white-ball cricket. He's hard to get away... he's just smart. You forget he's 24 - he's like a 30-year-old bowler in a young man's body, because he just knows what to do, and makes you take tough options.

"At Hove, you target down the hill a lot and whoever has to bowl that end has the tough job and he managed always to deal with that. I think Hampshire will miss him. They've had a lot of white-ball success and a lot of that has been down to Danny's bowling. Even watching him going about his four-day bowling, he's smart, you know he's going to go at two per over on any wicket, but I think he's got more than that.

"He's given up more money to come here and play. It shows his desire to improve and play. It would have been easy to just sit there and play white-ball cricket but he's wanted to learn, especially in four-day cricket. He's one of those guys I've wanted to play with again for a long time so as soon as the chance came up, we took it."

The retirement of Yardy, influential not just as a batsman but as a defensive left-arm spinner in limited-overs cricket, was another consideration. "When we've done well, Yards has been a huge part of it so to get a like-for-like was massive for us."

Wright's demands with regard to personal fitness will be unyielding. This is part of his own make-up, but it is also a reminder of his time as a young professional under Sussex's then director of cricket, Chris Adams, who supervised one of the most productive periods in the county's history, skippering them to three titles between 2003 and 2007. Adams' star has waned - Sussex resisted his return in a coaching capacity despite his unhidden enthusiasm for the role - but his influence on Wright lives on.

"We are going to have to look at younger guys and they will have to improve because on the financial side - you see what money we lost last year - we can't go out and there like Surrey and others and just sign people," Wright said. "We will have to produce better within.

"I'm happy to play youth, as long as they've earned the right to play. In the second team, the results weren't good enough. People moaning about not playing when they are averaging 30 in the second team. Sorry that's not good enough. Come to me when you're averaging 80 in the second team.

"I've had huge issues with this. I was brought up on the idea that you had to churn massively to even get a look in. Knock on Grizz's [Adams'] door and ask if you can play and he'd laugh at you if you were averaging 40. It's not good enough. Going into club cricket, asking around who's done what and people saying I got 20 or 30 - that's not what we are trying to breed."

Wright's condemnation stretches to Sussex's fielding. Only Magoffin, a senior seam bowler whose skill is extending his career beyond the norm, will be partially exempt from high expectations. "Fitness and physicality is important. Our fielding has been awful, and it's hard to win things if that's the case. Sometimes you naturally get athletes coming through your academy and sometimes you don't. But it's about making yourself as good as you can be.

"As a club we've always driven massively on work ethic and making you the best you can be and I didn't think we had done that for the last few years. In fielding everyone can improve - you're not going to suddenly turn everyone into Jonty Rhodes but for young lads coming through we've said it's not acceptable to be a passenger.

"The captaincy has come at a great time for me. The majority of my career was just spent hunting down an England place, or preparing for the next tournament or the next series, and you're always quite selfish when you're doing that. When you're not involved with England for a few years you look for that next thing to get you going and captaincy was good for me last year. I loved it. The club has given me everything I could have dreamt of, and now I want to get us back fighting where we should be."

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps

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