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Feature

Farbrace's Sussex challenge: 'No reason why we shouldn't be pushing to get promoted'

New head coach wants young squad to make big strides after tough transition at Hove

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
30-Mar-2023
Paul Farbrace is looking to lighten the mood at Sussex  •  Getty Images

Paul Farbrace is looking to lighten the mood at Sussex  •  Getty Images

Rarely does an audience with Paul Farbrace, set to embark on his first season as Sussex's new head coach, not throw up several talking points. He was in typically garrulous mood for the club's media day at Hove on Wednesday, holding court on his time spent coaching at the International League T20 over the winter, Sussex's "unacceptable" recent record in the Championship, their signing of Australia's Steven Smith ahead of the Ashes, and the state of county cricket in general ("in a good place").
At one point, having sidestepped a question about the potential involvement of English players in Major League Cricket - a tournament that threatens a regular clash with the ECB's prime summer white-ball slots - to allow Ravi Bopara, Sussex's T20 captain, to give his view, Farbrace followed up with a twinkle: "That sounds like a bloke who has done his homework on dates."
It is Farbrace's evident enthusiasm and busy can-do approach that Sussex hope can harness a talented group of young players after several years of underperformance down on the south coast. Amid a raft of departures, and no shortage of supporter discontent, the club have managed just three wins in first-class cricket - and 19 defeats - over the last three seasons. But Farbrace has already scotched any talk of incremental progress and set out two lofty goals: promotion from Division Two of the Championship, and an appearance at T20 Finals Day.
"We don't want to start talking about winning two or three games this year, rather than one last year, [and then] let's try and do a little bit better next year. We've been very open with the players [that] promotion in Championship cricket is our absolute goal, and getting to Finals Day and challenging to win the T20. It is achievable with the players that we've got, there is no reason why we shouldn't be pushing to get promoted and get into Finals Day.
"I know that sounds punchy, and I know that sounds as though perhaps I'm a little bit deluded there. But if we come in and we start talking at the start of the season about 'let's see how far we can go, let's hope to win a few games' - well, let's not bother turning up."
Sussex have leaned heavily on their academy in recent seasons - in part due to the financial necessity that also sees a newly completed ziggurat of flats watching over the south entrance to the ground - and take obvious pride in developing a number of promising players in their teens and early 20s. The club provided nine players to England at various representative levels over the winter, from Ollie Robinson in the Test team to Tom Haines and Jack Carson with the Lions and as many as five members of the Under-19s squad that toured Australia.
Haines captained the red-ball side last year, stepping up after Travis Head did not return for the second year of his contract with Sussex, but Farbrace has opted to lighten his load. India's Cheteshwar Pujara will instead lead the team in the Championship, with Tom Alsop lined up to fill in when Pujara is away on Test duty; Haines will captain the one-day side, while being allowed more time to focus on his batting.
As well as Pujara and Smith, who will join for three Championship games in May, Sussex have recruited the Australian allrounder Nathan McAndrew to bolster a squad that has not been used to winning. Pujara and McAndrew are due to arrive in time for the start of the season while Robinson is also expected to play in next week's opener against Durham, as he works towards his Ashes head-to-head with Smith later in the summer.
"Players learn from players, and the more high-quality people we have around our players, the quicker they'll learn and the quicker they'll learn how to win those tough periods of games, which will allow them then to start winning games of cricket. You win the tough sessions, and then you win another tough session, and then you win the day - before you know where you are, you're winning games and it becomes an expectation rather than hope. And I think that's the narrative that we have to change - not hope, let's expect.
"We've got to be stronger, [saying] that this is the session that we need to make sure we stay in the game, and then we can start getting ourselves back into winning the game again. And that's why you need to break it down hour-by-hour, session-by-session, basically."
On the notion that the counties ought to play with more of a "Bazball" mentality this year, following on from the success of the England Test team under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, Farbrace said "positive, attacking cricket" would be encouraged at Sussex. In particular, a bowling attack that has struggled in the absence of senior heads like Robinson, Jofra Archer and Steven Finn, will be told to focus on wicket-taking rather than economy.
"Our batting I've got no issues with, I think we've got a lot of batters who will naturally take the game on," Farbrace said. "But it's our bowlers, if we can get that shift into their mindset, then I think that that could really work well for us."
And Farbrace, who was assistant to Trevor Bayliss when England last won the Ashes in 2015, is in no doubt that first-class cricket - and the Championship in particular - is something that must continue to be nurtured. While England were crowned T20 World Champions in November, and the ever-expanding franchise circuit offers increased opportunity for English players during the off-season, Farbrace warned that the ECB could only continue to have the best of both worlds if it looked after the domestic structure at home.
"There is a danger for any young cricketer that can strike a cricket ball, you could end up playing nine months of the year white-ball cricket, three months' red-ball cricket. That's why I was really strong last year [during the Strauss review] when we started talking about reducing Championship cricket from 14 to 10 games. I was very much of the view we need to maintain 14 games and we need to protect county cricket, because county cricket is where we produce players to play for England.
"County cricket is alive and well, producing a lot of very talented players - we all know that when England struggle away from home, we look at county cricket but actually county cricket is in a good place. And I think we've got to protect Championship cricket and make it the best version we can."

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick