Derbyshire 371 for 5 (Madsen 111, Critchley 85, Godleman 52) vs Sussex
Reconstruction work continues around the main entrance to the Hove County Ground. The Sussex Cricketer pub where players and supporters would mix after play has been demolished and plans for a wider redevelopment of the site emphasise "the village green feel of the club." There is a joke here that is too obvious but too cruel to complete.
Obvious, because Sussex entertained Derbyshire today in the equivalent of 18th place in the Championship, the one and only side below their visitors. Cruel, because the team comprises disproportionately of youngsters taking formative steps at professional level. They must have potential to have reached this far in the game and in fact it was more university than village: a wholehearted but callow bowling attack simply too inconsistent to make regular inroads.
Sussex reached a nadir last week with defeat by an innings to Leicestershire, an unfortunate coincidence as Leicester were the side they trounced - by an innings - to complete their first title in 2003. The latest result drew criticism from Matt Prior, the former England wicketkeeper who played in that game 18 years ago. "Heart-breaking for these young players, the fans and the members," he wrote in a tweet since deleted. "They are all being let down. It's not about money, it's club management and decision making at the top. Can't sit back any longer."
In late-August, Sussex fielded a team against Worcestershire with an average age of 19. Ten had come through their own academy including five from Eastbourne, belying the image of the town as a giant retirement home. Although the squad of 13 for Derbyshire was slightly older it still featured six teenagers and only two players over 22. The demise of the Sussex Cricketer has at least spared the embarrassment of being asked for proof of age on their own ground.
Fault obviously rests with a recruitment policy leaving such imbalance between youth and experience, and a wage structure that has prioritised Twenty20 over the Championship to an extreme degree, leaving chief executive Rob Andrew under scrutiny. In contrast to the side that reached Finals Day at the weekend, the four-day team has a reckless imbalance between youth and experience. This should change; Fynn Hudson-Prentice has already arrived from Derbyshire and Steve Finn will join from Middlesex for next season. More signings are likely, and with the appointment of a full-time captain delayed until the winter following Ben Brown's midsummer sacking, the club may be leaving the post open to attract an overseas player such as Travis Head, who has unfinished business after a poor 2021.
Realistically, though, how far can anyone take a club like Sussex in the modern age? Because this is more than the tale of one county club. More ominous than poor results are the departures of Phil Salt and Chris Jordan. They are far from the first pair to leave non-Test counties, but the Hundred seems sure to increase the volume of moves to host counties. Derbyshire themselves may be the next to see the pulling power of the competition if speculation that Matt Critchley will move to Glamorgan having played for Welsh Fire this summer proves accurate, while Ross Whiteley left Worcestershire for Hampshire this week after a successful stint with Southern Brave.
Perhaps Sussex are ahead of the game. If the Championship, rather than the Royal London Cup, is threaded around The Hundred next season then the type of semi-development side they have fielded recently will become the norm across the competition. The four-day playing field would be levelled in the summer months and the standard of their younger players measured in a clearer context of like against like.
But here's the rub. In the longer run, who will benefit from their strategy? Some of the youngsters will fall by the wayside, others will forge livings from the game. And if one or two emerge as serious cricketers, will they stay at Hove or be lured by offers that Sussex, and the other non-Hundred counties, simply cannot match? It is a very vicious circle of youngsters struggling while they develop, then leaving a gap once they are mature and courted. At least when Alan Hansen famously predicted that Manchester United would win nothing with kids there was no doubting they would be trying to win with United and nobody else.
Prior thinks the loss of the two players reflects the culture at the top of the club rather than the lure of the new competition - no matter the coincidence of Salt moving to Old Trafford, home to his Hundred team as well as his new county, Lancashire. To Prior, the loss of Salt, was "absolutely devastating for a club hanging on to the edge right now." How could this happen, he asked rhetorically. "So sad for a club that not long ago was one of the best in the country and attracted players, not one where players wanted to leave."
Walter Gammie, a member, offers a balanced view of the campaign. "There is nothing better than seeing young players coming through and making you go 'wow'," he says. "It is genuinely exciting and I have thoroughly enjoyed this season for that reason. But I think the feeling is mixed, some members feel the club is just a little bit rudderless, that they are not quite certain what they want to achieve and make no suggestion of trying to be competitive in the Championship.
"The club must have had some knowledge through the schools of pretty good lads in the system. You see [James] Coles, [Danial] Ibrahim, Archie Lenham and Ali Orr, [Joe] Sarro and [Henry] Crocombe and [Jack] Carson, but for all that promise they are not ready to carry the side and so you wonder whether it is an unfair burden on them. I saw Tom Haines make his debut against Kent at 17 having scored no end of runs at Hurstpierpoint [College] as a schoolboy and now you see him comfortable at this level. But it has taken five years for him to have his breakthrough season. They need time."
Haines, standing in as captain at 22 since Brown's removal from the helm, led today in a way that members would like, maintaining a good over rate, trying as many as eight bowlers and posting a third man - everything except calling for the return of three-day cricket on uncovered pitches. His own passion was evident in the scream when Wayne Madsen reached a hundred a few balls after surviving an lbw appeal.
Though not at Hove for this match, Gammie would have approved of the absence of mutiny among the deck chairs and stands. Supporters generally are good at recognising the difference between players trying but struggling, and any swinging the lead. Carson established some control with his offspin before tea, Crocombe struck in successive overs to stop Derbyshire's attack on the new ball while Jamie Atkins, on his return from a shoulder injury, reminded of a young Steve Harmison: rangy, long-levered, occasionally sharp and sometimes quite nasty... but mostly erratic. To his great credit he was still running in hard at 5.40pm to deny Critchley his hundred. Whatever the group lacks for the time being, they have plenty of heart.
Derbyshire vs Sussex