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County Championship 2024

John Simpson: I’ve come down to Hove to have an impact, I want to win things

John Simpson
by Katya Witney 4 minute read

New Sussex captain John Simpson scored the first double-century of his first-class career on Day Three against Leicestershire yesterday (April 15). Ahead of the start of the season, he spoke to Wisden.com about why, at 35, he decided to leave Middlesex for a new challenge on the south coast.

The final few weeks of Sussex’s 2023 campaign ended under an unexpected dark cloud. Having been chasing down Championship promotion, on-field altercations during their penultimate home fixture of the season against Leicestershire left them without four key players for the following round and with a crucial 12-point deduction.

Despite a crushing win over Gloucestershire in the final round, Sussex finished 17 points adrift of promotion. Over the winter, several board resignations, public criticism of the club’s management by former players and the continued haemorrhaging of young talent to richer counties painted a picture of a club in free fall.

Understandably, at the beginning of the 2024 summer, Sussex seem keen to present an image of stability. Along with securing overseas pros Cheteshwar Pujara and Nathan McAndrew to return for another season, the appointment of two experienced heads in John Simpson and Tymal Mills as red-ball and T20 Blast captains respectively, injects maturity into a squad with 16 players aged 25 or under on staff.

For Simpson in particular, moving down to Hove from London after 16 years as a Middlesex stalwart, it’s not hard to see why a fresh challenge was just as appealing to the club as to him.

“It felt like now was the right time to take on that new challenge,” Simpson tells Wisden.com. “I had 16 years at Middlesex, but the opportunity Farby [Paul Farbrace, Sussex’s head coach] presented to me in October and having seen the squad and how close they came to getting promoted last year, it materialised pretty quickly.

“It was incredibly emotional. I’ve got a lot of close friends at Middlesex in Sam Robson, Toby Roland-Jones, Tim Murtagh, three guys that I’ve played 90 per cent of my career with and a lot of close mates that I’ve seen come through the academy and get professional contracts like Tom Helm, Max Holden and Steve Eskinazi. Having to have those conversations was pretty emotional. I rang every one of them up and told them the situation and why I was leaving. It was an emotional time.”

“But the talent in this squad at Hove is really exciting, and I want to come down here and have an impact on the field and off. I want to win things. First and foremost it’s about getting promoted to Division One where we all want to be. Having seen the strength of Division Two it’s probably going to be one of the strongest Division Two campaigns I’ve been involved in.”

The challenge for Simpson will be a significant one. Already in the first two rounds of Sussex’s 2024 campaign, they were denied a chance of pushing for victory against Northants in the opening round, the use of the floodlights at Hove deemed too expensive to warrant switching them on to allow play to continue into the evening on Day Four. A back injury Pujara picked up in India ruled him out of the fixture – one of the seven matches he will be available for.

In another sense of the challenge ahead, Simpson will be juggling his role as a keeper and middle-order batter along with captaincy. While that’s been a balance many have struggled with over the years, it’s a particular test for Simpson, who hasn’t captained in his professional career.

“It’s a big job, but I came down here for a challenge and that’s part and parcel of it,” says Simpson. “I’m 35 now, I’ve been there and played as a keeper batter and in that hybrid role at Middlesex, helping out the captain and coaches looking at the pitch and giving them a sense of what we should do at the toss and offering different ideas. It’s come at a late stage of my career but it felt like the right time.

“The difficult thing is, everyone uses the keeper-batter role as being a difficult enough job as it is. Adding captaincy on top of it makes it even more of a challenge. When I was in India for pre-season I had a really good chat with Warren Hegg, who’s a very good friend of mine, and I managed to tap into Chris Read as well. They did 20 years at Lancs and Notts respectively and they’re guys who have won things as captains and as keeper-batters. I think Ready went and did ten years as Notts captain. Hearing about what worked and didn’t work for them really opened my eyes and gave me a few bits of food for thought.

“I also had an hour’s chat with Faf du Plessis about captaincy when I was at Northern Superchargers which was brilliant. Those conversations have been invaluable for me.”

Despite the demands of the role, Simpson’s second-round double-century will push away any doubt that he’s capable of handling it. After over a day behind the stumps and only a few hours’ break, Simpson pushed on what could’ve been a middling first innings total into a near-700 run behemoth. He piled on 205*  to put Sussex in a dominant position to tick off their first win of the season.

Ramming home an advantage is something the side struggled with last year. Sussex drew ten of their 14 fixtures in 2023 and, coupled with the incidents against Leicestershire, there was a sense of needing an experienced hand to guide a talented group of youngsters. Farbrace said as much in a pre-season press conference.

“The reason for having good, experienced people on the field is that it’s where the key decisions are made,” said Farbrace. “There were times last year where I felt the first session of every Championship game we did really well but we drifted in the second hour… I think now, with our players having a year’s more experience and understanding of how we want to play and how we can be competently winning games, that’s where the senior players are worth their weight in gold.”

“It’s a less experienced side in a sense,” says Simpson. “But a lot of these lads have still had a lot of cricket so, from my perspective, it’s about getting the best from them. I said to them when I first came in and was announced as captain, what do you need from me and how can I help you? I want to come in and have an impact on players’ careers and hopefully they can tap into my experience and knowledge. That’s the exciting part for me.

“They’re going to make mistakes and I’m going to make mistakes but as long as there’s trust and buy into what I want to do and what we’re trying to do as a team, then we’re going to be in a pretty good place come September.”

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