Essay, 2004

The Year of the Martlet

Robin Marlar

Founded in faraway 1839, Sussex is the oldest of the county cricket clubs. But boy, have we been late developers! In the first season, all the matches were lost. Never mind the sea fret at Hove - there was a pall of gloom for 164 years and certainly for the 112 years from 1890, the official start of the County Championship, until 2002.

That was all part of local folklore. Now the discussion has gone from macro to micro: disputing the exact time. At some time between 1.43 p.m. and 1.45 p.m. on September 18, but definitely after lunch on the second day of the last match against lowly Leicestershire, Murray Goodwin, prolific opening batsman from Zimbabwe via Australia, pulled the boundary which took Sussex to the 300 mark, and their sixth bonus point of the game. This put them beyond the reach of their last challengers for the 2003 County Championship, Lancashire, who had thrashed Sussex in the previous match at Old Trafford. Talk about frayed nerves! It looked as though the fat lady had forgotten to turn up.

Thanks to the generous forbearance of their visitors, play was held up for no fewer than eight minutes' rejoicing. Celebrations were instantaneous, wholehearted and prolonged. It was a privilege to be present, especially among so many fellow old sweats. It was a masterstroke to bring down the 105-strong Christ's Hospital marching band, boys and girls, on that last day. It was necessary, too, because the tape of that stirring song, "Sussex By The Sea", was all but worn through. Even now the memory of the blue cassocks and yellow stockings striding the outfield and the crowd singing the chorus

You may tell them all
That we stand or fall,
For Sussex by the sea

can bring a tear to a rheumy old eye. On the next day, handicapped by a collective hangover which only a club with its own pub could generate, Sussex went on to win by an innings, and finish 34 points clear of the field. This was a ready riposte to clever dicks, especially from old rivals Kent, who publicly doubted whether Sussex were the rightful winners.

On no fewer than seven occasions, the Martlets have been second: bridesmaids may share the excitement, the occasion and a slice of cake, but next day they are back where they were. This time, Sussex made it to Buckingham Palace, where by long-established practice, they received their medals from the Duke of Edinburgh, a talented batsman in his day (he hit me for six, anyway) before polo called. It was a double triumph too, because the Sussex women's team also became champions for the first time, and they came to the palace together on a coach from Hove, arriving late enough to qualify both teams for bread and water in the dungeon. (Yorkshire also copped both titles in 2001, we discovered - and their coach was even later.) Whatever view you may take of tradition and ceremonial, it was very special to those who had never come close to honours before - not least because so many of those associated with winning the title were already planning the encore.

It had seemed a distant prospect six years earlier, after half a dozen top players had walked out. A sporting banker called Jim May heard me tut-tutting on telly and rang me up to inform me that, as I had got a big mouth, I had better join him to do something about it. Meanwhile, Tony Pigott, a former stalwart but then at Surrey, was canvassing support for Sussex 2000, which successfully ousted the old committee at the AGM.

At that stage, just stopping the rot, trying to avoid bottom place, was a noble enough ambition. But Pigott and Peter Moores, the executive and captain who were obliged to sort out this mess, were - believe me - not merely dreaming of the Championship but working towards it. Top of the wish list was a new, imported skipper, whose arrival would be a symbol of change. A magnet for others, he would be a recognisable leader to bright young things emerging through the development programme.

It was a Benson and Hedges final that made it obvious that Chris Adams was a future captain of somebody. A class act is easily spotted. In 1993, there had been a fuss over ball-tampering in a county match, and when Derbyshire squared up to Lancashire at Lord's, Wasim Akram let go a beamer from the pavilion end that hit Adams on the shoulder. Intentional or not (and the umpire thought it was), words were exchanged at lunch, Adams not mincing his. He exuded spirit all day. It was the quality most needed on our precious acres. Four years later, we recruited him and never regretted it, even though some thin years still followed. Whatever the results, he brought a glimmer of hope because people wanted to play for him; the spirit and attitude in the club were transformed.

There were times even in 2003 when Sussex reverted to collapse mode. But the collapses became uncharacteristic. The team's mettle was most visible in the crucial ninth win against Middlesex, when Sussex, facing 392, were 107 for six. A locally bred star, Matthew Prior, together with the South African Mark Davis, batting at Nos 7 and 8, saved Sussex with huge innings, and in the process demoralised their old bank holiday rivals. Then Mushtaq Ahmed bowled them out on his way to his 100th wicket.

He was the signing that made all the difference. A match-winner hungry for more and more five and ten-wicket hauls, he was given extra motivation by trading wickets for cash, a feature of cricket even before Sussex were founded. Once given the ball, he was reluctant to let it go. Wonderful to captain, said Adams. Mushtaq had bowled like that when he destroyed England at The Oval in 1996: now he was back to his best. So was James Kirtley, who should have been picked by England when Sussex were in the doldrums. In the final game, Leicestershire were bowled out by another local stalwart who had lived through the bad times, Jason Lewry. By then Mushtaq, like the king in the nursery rhyme, was in the counting house counting out his money - prior to an unexpected resumption of his Test career.

What took Sussex so long? It is possible to argue that they were champion county before everyone else had woken up. That was what I used to hear from George Washer - gas fitter and scorer, a hard man withal, who could continue talking non-stop without ever losing the fag from his lower lip. He insisted Sussex had been champions, according to his equivalent of Duckworth/Lewis, in the 1870s, and took on the formidable Major Rowland Bowen on this subject.

Certainly, they twice came second in Edwardian times, with Fry and Ranji. Then there were three in a row during the frustrating 1930s: in late July 1934, they looked almost certain to be champions, but only won one game out of the last 12. "Short of being a really tip-top team," sniffed Wisden. I was personally convinced we were going to win in 1953, David Sheppard's year, until Rupert Webb missed a vital catch behind the stumps at Hastings against Yorkshire. There may be an element of bias here since I was bowling at the time, and had turned an off-break away from the left-hander, Vic Wilson. Anyway, Webb went on to play the father of one of the brides in Four Weddings and a Funeral, which some might think constitutes greater glory than any Championship.

In 1981, when John Barclay led arguably the strongest Sussex team, they maddeningly failed to take the last Nottinghamshire wicket in a match which pitted Imran Khan and Garth le Roux against Richard Hadlee and Clive Rice. Afterwards, there was a spirited row about over-rates.

Looking at so many distinguished names, it is clear that Sussex have never lacked for style. That elusive quality is, happily, endemic at Hove. But perhaps Sussex have not always played primarily to win. That, historically, might be the difference between the "southron folk" and the northerners. Why play if not to win? For fun; for friendship; for experience; to explore.

When Chris Adams gave his victor's speech, he said: "We wanted it more than any of the others." He was also kind enough to say that he wanted to share his triumph with all those who had gone before. But perhaps in the past Sussex have not wanted it quite enough. The truth is that only this team has deserved today's congratulations: "Well done, lads."

Robin Marlar was captain of Sussex from 1955 to 1959 and chairman from 1997 to 2000. He was cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times from 1970 to 1996.

© John Wisden & Co