Sussex find a fine line in second chances

In his acclaimed book “What Sport Tells Us About Life” the former England and Middlesex opener Ed Smith discusses the nature of talent and sporting success. The point of Smith’s article is that occasionally failure, and how you deal with failure, can be as important to sporting success as talent.

He wrote: “Formative defeats are usually a central strand in any successful sportsman’s story – because failure, for almost every athlete, is written into the script. The important question is not whether you will fail, but when, and, above all, what happens next”.

The notion is relatively simple, yet also, potentially powerful – writing off talent on the basis of failure is foolish, providing it with a platform to be nurtured and thrive is arguably the key. The notion itself is hardly revolutionary, Billy Beane’s Moneyball is a powerful example of it in practice, but remains a hard thing to pull off consistently.

Watching England play this week though was to see the benefits of such an approach in practice, as their success has been helped by the performances of two men whose careers have thrived following their own second chances, Matt Prior and Monty Panesar.

Prior, lest we forget, was once a cursed man for England. His batting unravelled quickly as his keeping made him a liability, just ask Ryan Sidebottom. He was so bad he was dropped for Tim Ambrose (!), and returned to Sussex with a chip on his shoulder and a lot to think about. Four years on, and you’d be hard pressed to get him out of your all-time England XI.

Panesar was dropped by England when people worked him out. He needed help, but Northamptonshire couldn’t help him. He went a season where he couldn’t get anyone out, found himself below Swann and James Tredwell (!) in the England pecking order. Two years on, one move to Sussex and plenty of first class wickets later and a more confident, assured Monty has emerged.

While both their stories are about two men who find answers to some tough questions, it is also about those who kept asking the question time-and-time-again so they can find the answers. For that Mark Robinson and his Sussex staff deserve huge credit for helping both players along the way.

It’s a recurring theme with Robinson and Sussex, the redemptive “second chance” story. Take a look at their signings this summer – Rory Hamilton-Brown and Chris Jordan – two men with abundant talent, but needing answers to some questions about how to harness it properly.

Hamilton-Brown has had a troubled time since the tragic death of Tom Maynard, which has understandably affected him given their closeness. His game at Surrey when he returned appeared to be falling apart, and he desperately needed a change. Sussex will provide him with that change, and hopefully put his game back together. He remains, in this writers view, a probably one day opener for England in a year or two, given his ability to strike the ball cleanly and his excellent ability against spin. It’s a potent package, it just needs putting back together.

Chris Jordan is a different tale. His talent is clear, as are his attributes, but his struggles with fitness and form have made him infuriatingly inconsistent. He should be a dream for a coach or captain, how many players in English cricket can hit sixes and bowl 90mph? But at times he looks more like a nightmare. He has all the talent in the world, but has yet to show he knows how to harness it. At the time of his release from Surrey, he looked like another bright young thing consigned to the scrap heap. Sussex though, realise the potential, and given their track record know how to cultivate it, so that Jordan’s career could yet hit the heights once envisioned in his youth.

They are in good company in this team. Ed Joyce appeared to be stagnating at Middlesex having been burned by England; he joined Sussex and became one of the most dangerous one day batsmen in England again. James Anyon was a bright young thing gone wrong at Warwickshire but joined Sussex and has become the true heir to James Kirtley as their pace bowling spearhead. Joe Gatting was convinced to pack in a floundering football career for another one as a middle order nurdler.

In a county circuit which, through tightened finances and increased domestic regulation, is finding its player pool getting smaller by the year, unearthing bargain buys from other’s castoffs is a tough business. But Sussex is developing a healthy reputation as the club which thrives on second chances.

James Vince: An aesthete among athletes

While the eyes of English cricket were focused firmly on Derby to ascertain the potential goods and greats of England’s future, in a relatively sedate corner of Surrey there were plenty of other England international’s past, present and possibly future on show. At Whitgift, a school with a rich tradition of nurturing notable sporting talent, there were England internationals everywhere.

Dominic Cork, Gareth Batty, Chris Schofield and Simon Jones represented the past, Steven Davies, who endured a somewhat mixed game, still very much represents the present but it was the possible future internationals which were clearly in evidence. Certainly the likes of Danny Briggs, though he struggled on an unhelpful surface, Rory Hamilton-Brown, Tom Maynard and Jason Roy all have scope to potential into high class players. A word too for Benny Howell who in a losing cause gave a fine cameo and who looks a well-organised batsman and at 22 could be one to keep an eye on.

James Vince: Strokes over Slogs

All offered brief glimpses of their talent-Hamilton-Brown getting Surrey off on a flier, Roy and Maynard hitting straight and powerfully. Yet amidst all the power hitters and potential stars of the future, one in particular caught the eye in Hampshire’s James Vince. He didn’t score that many-24 runs off 13 balls-but they were probably the most graceful 24 runs out of the 586 scored in the match. Vince was once compared by former England coach Duncan Fletcher to Michael Vaughan and the likeness is uncanny. He stands tall, sets up his technique the same way, and cover drives with the same technical finesse as Vaughan once did.

Yet there was something else about him. Whereas the other young batsmen seemed to rely on sending the crashing to the boundary with a meaty hit out of their oversized bat-sometimes with the technical grace of a woodcutter attempting to smash the heart out of a mighty oak-Vince simply caressed the ball, timing it to perfection. He seemed to utilise utmost economy of effort and yet he would thread the eye of the needle and send the ball trundling away for four.

Sadly his cameo was all too brief-like Vaughan he appears to have a habit of getting himself out rather than allowing the bowler to-but this was an eye-catching innings without doubt. In an age where youngsters are being taught to hit the ball hard and true, Vince’s innings was one in the manner of a more civilised age.

It was that art of timing and stroke play which has been utilised so gracefully down the years by a line of English artists like David Gower, Michael Vaughan and latterly Ian Bell. One hopes that James Vince can develop like those three did, because crickets needs its artists as well as it’s artisans and he appears well schooled in that fine art of timing.

Surrey CCC find long-term changes mean short-term struggles

Far from resembling the Manchester United of the county game, Surrey CCC currently play more like the Macclesfield Town of it.

It has been two years since Chris Adams took over the club promising to engineer a revival to those days when Surrey ruled the county game, yet in that time despite a root and branch, and highly expensive, overhaul of playing personnel Surrey fans have witnessed only two wins in County Championship matches at that time.

Yet the dire straits which Surrey found themselves in, last night arguably represented a new low as they were booed off by their own fans at the Oval having been soundly thumped by Gloucestershire in a 20/20 clash.

It summed up the frustrations of the fans over the past years, but also spoke about the current problems with their squad.

Despite an expensive overhaul of their playing squad-including captain Rory Hamilton Brown, there is little sign of improvement-as shown by their low score of 97 yesterday.

This is a batting line-up including some quality batsmen-including a middle order of Mark Ramprakash, Younus Khan, Andrew Symonds and Usman Afzaal-all international players. Meanwhile the opening partnership of Hamilton-Brown and Steven Davies features two of the most promising youngsters in English cricket.

Meanwhile the bowling, including Andre Nel, Chris Tremlett and Gareth Batty has struggled to both maintain a level of control and take wickets throughout the season. The ever-improving Jade Dernbach has been an exception.

Amongst it all, their novice captain has understandably struggled. The pressure on him to score the requisite runs required of him for his team and also inspire a team which is struggling to put team’s under pressure.

It also puts pressure on his mentor, coach Chris Adams, who having arrived to such fanfare from Sussex has so far opted to take the long road in regenerating Surrey CCC.

Despite enlisting the help of some notable names from the club’s past, including Graham Thorpe and Alec Stewart, there have been precious signs of regeneration as Adams’ recruitment strategy and development schemes have seen little in the way of results.

While the failure of notable big names is mystifying, especially given that on paper Surrey could well be battling with the top county teams-the main cause of disgruntlement among Surrey fans, there are few signs that Adams may yet be under pressure.

As one of the county game’s richest clubs, Surrey have spent extravagantly on assembling a squad with some of the brightest names in English cricket, but such a policy has won them few friends as fans of Worcestershire and Sussex bemoaned the bully-boy tactics employed to snare the likes of Hamilton-Brown and Davies.

Yet while the club have been spending wisely, there have also been some notable PR gaffs-not least the spat with Sussex, the pursuit of the long-retired Brian Lara and not to mention the signing of a vastly under-prepared Shoaib Akhtar.

It has been a rather cumbersome two years in charge, though as Adams admitted in a pre-season interview, he said:  “Young, fresh, brave and positive, those are the keywords for the squad this season.”

Yet focussing on the long-term, as Adams seems content to, may not be enough for Surrey fans who have grown accustomed to watching their team struggle.

While the club and its staff may believe that there are signs of promise for the future, judging by the response of Surrey fans to yesterday’s latest defeat, they are becoming even harder to see.