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Luke Wright: Sussex Blast triumph would be 'ideal' send-off for Jason Gillespie

Captain has led the way with the bat to keep Sussex in quarter-final hunt

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Luke Wright looks on, Sussex v Essex, Vitality Blast, September 14, 2020

Luke Wright has led the way for Sussex with the bat  •  Alex Davidson/Getty Images

If T20 can be a fickle game, no competition exemplifies it better than the Vitality Blast. While most leagues now incorporate an IPL-style play-off system - with the team finishing top of the group stage given a double chance - the Blast is a straight knockout from the quarter-finals. Even if you win every game in your group, one slip-up is enough for you to be dumped out unceremoniously.
Sussex know that better than most. Across the last two-and-a-half seasons, they have the joint-best win/loss ratio (alongside Lancashire) in the competition, but no silverware to show for it. After losing a tight 2018 final to Worcestershire, they confirmed their knockout spot with two group games to spare last season, but Moeen Ali made a remarkable 121 not out after being dropped on 5 in the quarters to send them out.
"No matter how good a team you are, we all know how random T20 can be on any given day," reflects their captain Luke Wright. "We've been very, very close. All you can do is keep getting yourself into the quarter-finals and hope you get it right on the day.
"It's not always the best team that wins; it's the one that gets some momentum at the right time. That's what Essex did last year. They were nearly dead and buried at the halfway stage, but they timed their run brilliantly. Sometimes you almost want to scrape into the quarters: if you hit form once you're into those, then you've got a massive chance."
Sussex look well-placed to qualify with three games to go in the South Group this season. Defeat at home to Essex on Monday, thanks to a Dan Lawrence special - "he played out of his skin" says Wright - was a surprise, but two wins should be enough to secure a quarter-final berth.
They have managed that despite the absences of Jofra Archer, Chris Jordan (both England then IPL), Phil Salt (England reserve), Laurie Evans, Reece Topley (both left for Surrey), Rashid Khan and Travis Head (both had their contracts cancelled) for much of the tournament to date, and plenty of that has been thanks to Wright's own form.
"I felt like I played pretty nicely last year, but this year with people missing and Laurie leaving, it's been nice to step up," he says. "I hadn't picked up a bat for the best part of seven months coming into this: my last cricket was the Abu Dhabi T10 in November, and then I was coaching with the Stars in the Big Bash.
"I thought I'd pick the bat up again in March but I was furloughed until three weeks before the tournament. My first bat against bowlers was Tymal Mills in training, which was nice: I literally had just him, and a bit of Chris Jordan, bowling at me for three weeks. It was disgraceful, especially when half the time there's been no sightscreen or the odd dodgy wicket.
"It was a baptism of fire, but you're over-training when you face those two blokes. It probably set me up really well, as uncomfortable as it was, and as much as I was trying not to break my fingers along the way. Everyone else seems a lot slower after facing them."
Wright is the second-highest run-scorer in the tournament as of Tuesday morning, averaging 43.57 while striking at 150.24 - significantly quicker than the 125.97 he managed last year. He puts that down to a different role, with more onus on him to get Sussex off to quick starts while Salt has been away, but says that at 35, he still feels near his best.
"You learn to play the scenarios, and the different roles," he explains. "When I was younger, I wouldn't have necessarily had the ability to rein it in on a trickier wicket, or while batting with someone like Salty: it was just see ball, hit ball. But that makes you less consistent.
"Often in cricket, we're very quick to try and get older players to retire, or are shocked when they do well, but I think now you can go on into your late 30s and early 40s, especially with extra recovery time if you don't play all formats - I think Stevo [Darren Stevens] has shown that."
In the absence of some senior players, Delray Rawlins has stepped up in the middle order - "he's starting to become the talent we know he can be; when he gets going he's hard to stop" - but Ravi Bopara has struggled after making the move to the South Coast, with a top score of 18 in seven innings.
"I feel sorry for him," Wright says. "He's more of a rhythm player than I am, so that lack of preparation has been really tough. Our fans would have been right behind him, singing his name, and helping him to bed in. But last year he had a very quiet start, and came romping home for the last four or five games. I'm sure he'll win us a game single-handedly pretty soon.
"This is a really tough league. You don't feel like there are any easy fixtures that you can just turn up to and win. But if you'd have offered me the position we're in right now at the start of the comp, we'd definitely have taken it: going into the last three games with our destiny in our own hands."
Sussex have been boosted by confirmation of Salt's availability for Wednesday night's game against Surrey at The Oval, and are waiting anxiously to hear about Mills' scan results after he left the field with a back complaint on Monday. A win against the group leaders would mean they had one foot in the knockout stages, and nudge them a step closer towards winning the tournament in Jason Gillespie's final month as head coach.
"He's been great for me as captain," Wright says. "He doesn't feel like he has to dominate; he's open to ideas and lets us senior players go about it how we want to. His new job is a great opportunity for him but I know he's sad to be leaving Sussex. If we could win it and send him off with a trophy, that'd be ideal."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98