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Project Sussex requires signs of progress as Ian Salisbury targets 'sustained success'

2021 wooden-spoon winners are optimistic that young squad can make big strides forward

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
Ian Salisbury wants to return "sustained success" to Hove  •  Getty Images

Ian Salisbury wants to return "sustained success" to Hove  •  Getty Images

Few things quicken the anticipation ahead of the start of the county season like a trip to Good Old Sussex by the Sea. The sight of Hove's deckchairs might not cure all the ills which currently beset the English game, but it feels like a decent place to start. The question that might have been asked, however, as a flurry of sleet and snow across the immaculate green acreage caught the attention of those assembled in the pavilion for Sussex's press day, was: which sea? Perhaps the Baltic.
Soon the sun was shining again, and there are hopes for brighter times at Sussex. After finishing bottom of the Championship in 2021, during a season in which they gave as many as nine first-class debuts to young, homegrown players - and at one stage fielded a team with an average age of 19 - the expectation from both management and supporters is for a more competitive summer.
Concerns about the club's direction of travel have simmered under the surface, notably given voice by the former Sussex and England wicketkeeper Matt Prior, with the influx of youth offset by a high number of departures - Phil Salt, Chris Jordan and Ben Brown left over the winter, following the likes of Laurie Evans, Danny Briggs and Luke Wells out through the gates on Eaton Road. But Ian Salisbury, head coach of the Championship and 50-over sides, believes a rebuilding process was needed in order to deliver "sustained success" of the sort Sussex were used to in the 2000s.
There have been moves to strengthen a callow squad that might otherwise be considered outside contenders in Division Two. In particular, the arrivals of Steven Finn, the former England seamer signed from Middlesex, and overseas batters Cheteshwar Pujara and Mohammad Rizwan ought to bring a hardened edge to the dressing room; Ollie Robinson, who has a point to prove after fitness issues stalled his progress at Test level over the winter, is also expected to be available for a number of the early rounds - though not next week's opener against Notts.
Further international experience has been added to the mix with the arrival of Grant Flower as batting coach, while former club captain Mike Yardy has returned to Hove as academy director. It feel likes there is now greater heft behind the club's crop of young players, which includes a pair of precociously talented 17-year-olds in Danial Ibrahim and Archie Lenham. What Salisbury refers to as "the project" at Hove might just be coming together.
"Do we aim to get promoted? Of course we do," Salisbury said. "But more importantly, we want to be better than what we were last year. That's not just as a team, it's as individuals, as coaches. We just want to keep improving. We know where we want to be in four or five years' time, which is bringing sustained success back to Sussex, in all competitions. I know the side we have, and the squad we have, once we get to that situation, we can be there for a long time, just because of the age of this side.
"That's why we took the decisions we have done in the past, because we haven't been in the first division since 2015, we haven't won a trophy for 13 years. So something had to change, because that's not acceptable for a club of this standing. So how do you do it? You rebuild, you make decisions - some made around Covid. But we made a decision to go down the route we have, because we want to bring sustained success back to Sussex. But we know when we get there, we'll hold it there for a long period of time."
One of the players who is expected to play a key role in any Sussex resurgence is 23-year-old opener Tom Haines. No-one in the country scored more than Haines' 1176 Championship runs at 47.04 in 2021, and he will be aiming to lead from the front after being named interim captain of the red-ball side ("interim" because Sussex still retain the option to bring back Travis Head, the Australia batter who was expected to take charge, next summer). Encouragingly for Sussex, Haines' average actually rose - to 51.12 - in the four games in which he stood in for Brown last year.
It is only a couple of seasons since Haines was looking to establish himself in the first team and he admits it is "weird" to now be considered a senior player. Given the struggles of England's batters over the winter, it is not too far-fetched to think that further promotions could soon be in order. A strong start to the summer could bring him into discussions for the New Zealand series in June, though Haines will not be looking that far ahead.
"Right at the front of my mind at the moment is scoring as many runs as I can for Sussex," he told ESPNcricinfo. "I'm really focused on leading this side, and hopefully leading by example with runs and in the field. I'm not one to get too far ahead of myself, I think when you do that in cricket, it comes back to bite you. So I would never focus on the speculation [around] England selection, I just want to get my head down again, like I did last year, and hopefully back it up.
"It's nice to be mentioned by people but I'm always one to try and stay as level as I can, because as an opener batter failure it always going to happen. I try to stay nice and level headed and focus on the here and now, game by game in the County Championship for Sussex."
Haines describes "trusting my defence, and leaving well" as the two fundamentals of his game. Like Kraigg Brathwaite, whose obduracy at the top of the order helped West Indies to secure a series victory over England last week, he has never played a game of professional T20 - and while Haines says he doesn't want to pigeonhole himself, he has a clear goal in mind.
"My dream since I was young is to play Test cricket for England. I don't like to compare myself to any other players I don't like to put myself in their shoes and say I'd have done better because that's just not what I'm about. I try and focus as much as much as I can on myself, improving my own game. We've got great coaches here, Grant who's come in and been brilliant since day one, and we've got all the facilities here to really improve as a player."
Salisbury says that the Sussex's goal remains producing players for England, and Haines pushing for Test selection would be welcome - even if it leaves another hole in the side to be filled. The depth of the squad will be tested anyway, with spinner Jack Carson unlikely to play before May, having had surgery on a knee injury, and long-term absentee Jofra Archer unlikely to be in contention for first-team action until the Blast comes around.
No-one is getting carried away at Hove, but with a strong T20 side looking to improve on their Blast Finals Day appearance last year and a zephyr of optimism whispering around the Championship rebuild, there is hope that the members might be able to rest a little more comfily in their deckchairs.
"We won one [Championship] game last year, that's factual," Salisbury said. "So there's got to be some realism. To get promoted we might have to win eight games - 800% improvement? Anything's possible. More than anything, I want us to be better and show that we are actually progressing."

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick