County Championship April 15, 2008

Sussex ready for strong defence

Chris Adams: 'We look a strong squad on paper, but what I can say from behind those closed doors is that we are also strong as a unit' © Getty Images
Sussex begin the defence of their Championship crown against Hampshire at The Rose Bowl on Wednesday aiming to become the first county since Yorkshire in 1968 to claim a hat-trick of titles. It was been a fraught few months at Hove as they sweated over the availability of Mushtaq Ahmed, but their match-winner arrived safely in the country this week as Sussex were taking on MCC at Lord's.

He whirled away in the nets, clearing his throat with some hearty appeals as much as loosening his limbs for the campaign ahead. He has taken an incredible 459 wickets in five years with Sussex - including 192 in the last two successful seasons - and while anyone on the south coast baulks at the suggestion they are a one-man man it is undeniable the role Mushtaq has played.

However, Sussex have nothing to feel guilty about even if Mushtaq does provide such a significant advantage. They were clever enough to lure him to Hove in 2003 when his career was threatening to end quietly, and his enthusiasm and spirit runs throughout the squad, which, if anything, looks stronger this season even with the loss of Rana Naved and Richard Montgomerie.

The availability of Matt Prior, who is set to bat at No. 6, adds Test-match class to a healthy middle order while Chris Nash and Carl Hopkinson are more than capable of filling Montgomerie's boots. The bowling depth is there, too. Their new Australian signing, Ryan Harris, caught the attention with four wickets on debut at Lord's, where Luke Wright also bowled with impressive pace. And on top of all that, there's James Kirtley waiting in the wings.

"It's been a fantastic time for Sussex in the last four or five years," said their captain, Chris Adams. "We've played really competitive cricket and the nucleus of the squad is very much there. But we also have young players coming through and players coming back from international call-ups. We look a strong squad on paper, but what I can say from behind those closed doors is that we are also strong as a unit. It's great to have Mushy back and Murray Goodwin, they are two quality players who will only add to what we've got."

Goodwin also played a major role in Sussex's first Championship in 2003, finishing the season with a career-best 335 against Leicestershire to seal the title. Adams believes the side has continued to evolve since then and keeps getting stronger. "Less and less are we relying on one-dimensional players - bowlers who don't bat - the way our side is now structured includes a lot of players who bowl and bat to a high standard. That's what the vision has always been, and if that includes players who have come through our system then we are getting to where we wanted to be. Good home grown talent who could play for England."

Crucially, though, the impact of international calls in the near future will be limited. Wright will be part of the one-day squad, but with Prior out of favour and the only other absentee could be Michael Yardy if he pushed his claims in the one-day arena which appears unlikely.

However, being the holders and, in many people's eyes, the favourites Sussex are there to be knocked off. "It's going to be another tight year. I don't think one, two or three sides are going to run away with it. It will be another year of everyone beating everyone, I really think the level has got much closer," said Adams.

"Surrey have impressed me with their end-of-season form last year, Lancashire are always strong, Hampshire and Kent as well. Somerset are making a lot of noise, telling us how good they are, so I'm keen to see how good they actually are. They are making a few declarations."

Somerset are making a lot of noise, telling us how good they are, so I'm keen to see how good they actually areChris Adams lays down the challenge

Adams doesn't want to look too far ahead with Sussex playing four key Championship matches in the first four weeks. "For me it's about the next month. If you're not on the money and properly prepared now you can find yourself with a lot to do. I know Surrey found that last year and were left to rue the start they had."

Two days after the Championship starts the Indian Premier League bursts into life. There is much conjecture about how the future of domestic cricket will look - and there will undoubtedly be change - but Adams believes the current set-up is strong and performing its role of preparing players for the top level.

"I think we have a powerful product in domestic cricket, the ECB should be looking to use that," he said. "In terms of the step up from what we are playing now to international cricket they tell me it's not too far away now. We have to thank the likes of Murali, Warney and for Peter Moores letting the England players back into county cricket. It's become quite an intense environment mirroring what you'd expect in Tests."

The international calendar is so packed that it means more Tests or ODIs are never far away and England start their series against New Zealand on May 15. In the meantime, if the IPL hasn't grabbed your attention then take a look at the Championship over the next month. It might surprise you.

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Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer at Cricinfo