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County Championship 2021

The Kids Are Alright: How Sussex are rebuilding with youth

Jo Harman by Jo Harman 7 minute read

Down at Hove, Sussex are giving youth a chance. Jo Harman speaks to Ian Salisbury and Ben Brown to learn more about the faith being placed in the next generation.

When Ian Salisbury and James Kirtley sat down with Sussex chief executive Rob Andrew last year and set out their vision for the club’s future, the wealth of talent in their academy was right at its heart. Already part of the coaching staff at Hove, they had witnessed first-hand the calibre of players who were developing under the tutelage of academy director, and former England assistant coach, Richard Halsall, and pitched a five-year strategy which Salisbury felt could bring “sustained success in the future”.

The Sussex supremo clearly liked what he heard, appointing Salisbury and Kirtley as joint head coaches, with the former taking charge of the four-day and 50-over sides, and the latter responsible for the T20 Blast.

The pair, who played more than 700 matches for Sussex between them, have stayed true to that youth policy since replacing Jason Gillespie last November, keeping the academy and senior set-up as closely connected as Covid restrictions allowed and providing a host of youngsters with first-team opportunities.

Of the 16 players Sussex have fielded in the County Championship so far this season, 10 of those are aged 24 or under, and only three are over 30. Four teenagers have featured, and three players have made their first-class debuts. The XI which lost a tight match to Yorkshire at Hove in April had an average age of just 23.8.

And there are more bright young things in the pipeline. James Coles, an exciting all-rounder who last summer, at the age of 16, became Sussex’s youngest first-class debutant is expected to feature when his school commitments allow, while 16-year-old batsman Danial Ibrahim and the Lenham brothers, Scott and Archie (sons of former Sussex seamer Neil) are also tipped for a bright future.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, the team’s performances have been inconsistent this season. After opening the campaign with a draw at Lancashire and victory at Glamorgan, they lost three on the bounce before a rain-affected stalemate with Kent.

But there have been enough individual highlights to see why the club have placed such faith in the next generation. Tom Haines (22), a Crawley-born left-handed opener, has kicked on from a century at The Oval in his final match of 2020 to post another hundred and three fifties; Brighton-born left-arm tearaway George Garton (24) is showing signs of developing into an all-rounder of international quality; Sean Hunt (19), a left-arm seamer recruited from Surrey’s academy, has taken five wickets at 18 in his first two outings; and, the pick of the bunch, Jack Carson (20), described by Salisbury as “the best young spinner in the country”, has taken 36 wickets at 22.91 since making his first-class debut last August.

Ben Brown, the club’s captain and wicketkeeper, says he’s prepared to take the rough with the smooth as these youngsters settle in, and believes Salisbury and Kirtley’s strategy is the best way for non-Test venues such as Sussex to achieve sustainable, long-term success.

“I think results will always be a bit up and down with a group of players this age, but the long-term strategy is so important to give it perspective,” Brown tells Wisden.com. “The crop of players are really talented, you can see that, but also to have Richard Halsall as academy director, you can really get excited by a project where you’re going to give young players an opportunity who you know are getting educated in the academy by a top, top coach, someone who’s been around the world as an international coach and has really learnt his trade. To have someone of his class in that role makes the whole project very easy to buy into. You can definitely see these players are going to be ready, which is the most important thing.”

Salisbury, who in his previous life as a leg-spinner took 210 first-class wickets before turning 23, is almost evangelical when discussing the need to give youngsters an early opportunity to impress.

“Just because we’re playing youngsters doesn’t mean to say we don’t still want to win,” he says. “This is short, medium and long term. We think it’s the right thing to do, not just for Sussex but for English cricket. If you get a chance to play youngsters when they’re young, and you get them experience, you could even get them playing Test match cricket younger as well.

“You always need patience when you’re playing youngsters. They’re going to make mistakes, they’re going to have failures, but it’s the rate at which they learn from those mistakes that will determine how quickly they have success. I think sometimes holding them back is the worst thing you can do. Don’t put barriers on kids. Don’t think they can’t do it because they’ll believe they can. Our role is to provide them with good instruction and good coaching and a safe environment to express themselves.”

Having spent four seasons trying and failing to get promoted from Division Two, Brown says the Championship’s new conference-based system has helped the club put their youth policy into practice.

“I felt having two divisions put a little bit too much pressure on clubs to get out of Division Two, and it can be a really difficult league to get out of. Teams can get tempted into playing on funny pitches at times, and I found the cricket can get a little bit watered down; playing two-day matches to try and get results. I love the new structure and I think it’s really helped a club like us who are trying to blood young players. We have loads to play for, we have loads to aim for, but also there’s not that stigma of being in Division Two, which can often lead to panicky selections or short-term thinking.”

But while the management and playing staff appear to have bought into the long-term strategy, are the supporters of a club who won seven trophies between 2003 and 2009, including three Championships, prepared to be so patient?

“I really hope so,” says Brown. “Our supporters will be able to identify the clubs that these boys have come from, to see that local connection, and I hope that helps them feel invested in this project. Because we’re under no illusions. We’re trying to get back to those days when we were winning trophies regularly, and there’s absolutely no talk of us doing anything other than that.

“Realistically we feel like it’s going to take a couple of years to get that experience into the players but I believe, and the club believes, that the way to win trophies is through the culture of players that have been through elite academies. Ideally our own, but if not our own then people like Sean [Hunt], who has been through a great academy system at Surrey.

“We believe that as a club that doesn’t have huge finances, that is the way to win trophies. We know we’ve got a good T20 team. The Championship project is longer. It’s about getting experience into these young players and also teaching them what it takes to win games of cricket. We’re trying to win the Championship and then leave a real legacy.”

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