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.

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Five Things We Learned In County Cricket This Week

1) Sussex are masters of the run chase

Sussex may have been gone from Division One for a year but they have certainly made quite a mark upon their return to English cricket’s upper echelons. Three wins, two draws and one defeat have made a mockery of pre-season predictions that last year’s Division Two champions would struggle upon their return. If anything Sussex have thrived upon it-boosted by the form of openers Ed Joyce and Chris Nash, the emergence of Luke Wells and bowlers Rana Naved Ul-Hasan, Amjad Khan and James Anyon who has 21 wickets already.

There’s is a typically resilient bunch, knitted together with a strong work ethic and team ethos and managed impeccably once more by Tim Robinson. Nothing has signified these factors more than their impressive mastery of the daunting run chase. First up was the two-wicket victory over Durham as they chased down 309-8 courtesy of Luke Wells’ hundred, then came a nerveless 187-1 to beat Nottinghamshire and finally their latest effort: 275-2 in the second innings to defeat Somerset.

From promotion last season to champions this time round? Why not? As Sussex have already shown they are good when it comes to the chase.

2) Somerset and Nottinghamshire have the teams to win but not the squads

The Championship’s top two last season are finding the going far tougher this time round-with Somerset currently sitting in fourth and Nottinghamshire in sixth-but worryingly both have also suffered heavy defeats and are struggling to hit their straps. The reason? Well injuries and call-ups mostly.

Somerset were missing Craig Kieswetter and James Hildreth while neither Murali Kartik or Alfonso Thomas were available as they fell to defeat against Sussex with a team containing youngsters Alex Barrow, Lewis Gregory and Craig Meschede in their middle order. Meanwhile Nottinghamshire had no Alex Hales, Samit Patel, Darren Pattinson, Luke Fletcher, Andy Carter and Neil Edwards at the last count. Taunton and Trent Bridge will start to resemble A & E wards at this rate. Both counties have the first XI to win the title, but neither has the strength in depth to cope with a raft of absentees like these.

3) Farveez Maharoof will be sorely missed by Lancashire

Farveez Maharoof has probably not been around long enough to go down as a Lancashire legend, but his role in Saturday’s epic chase has made sure that his brief time at Old Trafford will not be easily forgotten. Smashing 31 off just 19 balls to make a tricky chase manageable against your biggest rivals is one way to go about it. But this is just the latest episode in what has thus far been a remarkable season for the Sri Lankan, whose arrival at Lancashire was perhaps overshone somewhat by the signing of Ajantha Mendis by Somerset and Mohammad Yousuf by Warwickshire.

Yet the statistics themselves do Maharoof credit. His weakest suit-his batting-has shone with an innings of 102 batting at 8 against Somerset and an average of 65. His bowling has not sparkled quite so much but 8 wickets at 30 in a mainly supporting role to one of the strongest attacks in County Cricket have been important. Furthermore he has settled in quickly and proved popular with the dressing room, quite a contrast from the arrival of Daren Powell last season.

The bad news for Lancashire fans? Well sadly “The Roof” as he is known, has been rewarded for his good form with a call-up to the touring Sri Lanka team, a call-up which could potentially keep him out for a large portion of the campaign. This is a big blow in what has thus far been an almost flawless campaign for the Red Rose outfit, only time will tell just how sorely “The Roof” is missed.

4) Graham Napier deserves far more recognition

For Surrey, the sense of relief on Saturday will have been palpable. It was not so much they had been hit by a sledgehammer, but rather the cricketing tornado which was Graham Napier in full flow. The statistics of the onslaught he brought in the closing stages of Essex’s first innings make quite remarkable reading. 196 runs scored off 130 balls with 19 fours and a world-record equaling 16 sixes-drawing him level with a fellow big hitter in Andrew Symonds who struck the same number in an innings of 254* for Gloucestershire against Glamorgan in 1995. This makes it a second world record for Napier, who also took the world record for the number of sixes in T20 cricket with that innings against Sussex which first brought him to the world’s attention.

That innings brought him an IPL contract and a spot in England’s Twenty20 spot neither of which really worked out quite as he hoped thanks to a lack of opportunity and injury. Yet to describe Napier as simply a Twenty20 slogger is unfair-his hits are clean, struck with little backlift and considerable finesse. Furthermore he was striking against one of the better pace attacks on the County circuit, admittedly on one of the smaller grounds. If this was a big name like Kevin Pietersen or say perhaps Cameron White who are regularly renowned as the biggest hitters around then doubtless it would bring far greater recognition than Napier has so far had, yet as he proved on Friday he is capable of outhitting even the finest when he is in the mood.

5) Northamptonshire’s juggernaught isn’t slowing down just yet

Northamptonshire are County Cricket’s only unbeaten side, a quite remarkable achievement given the number of matches and competitions which each team play. Their success has rather slipped under the radar given that they: a) don’t contain a team packed with young English stars, b) rely heavily on a number of aging imported stars. There’s is not a tale which County Cricket will choose to promote, nor the media choose to focus on, but it deserves respect all the same.

This may well be an indian summer for their ex-international stars such as Andrew Hall, Chaminda Vaas plus steadfast county pro’s like David Sales and Mal Loye but it is testament to their ability that their standards haven’t dropped despite their aging years. So too has the form of unsung bowlers Lee Daggett and Jack Brooks who have 46 first class wickets between them at an average under 25. Given the number of games they have left to play it is unlikely they will manage the whole season undefeated, indeed if they do it will be a remarkable feat and they aren’t slowing down quite yet.

Five Things We Learned In County Cricket

1)      Dominic Cork is the Mark Ramprakash of pace bowling

For years County Cricket has been built on three things: overseas players, young prospects and experienced pros who have been there and done it before. As financial stabilities have become threatened so the number of overseas players and aging players has decreased as County Cricket now bears a more youthful look.

Dominic Cork: As competitive as ever

Yet there are two old pro’s who have bucked the trend, one is Mark Ramprakash of 100 100’s fame, the other is the under-rated Dominic Cork.

Cork is nearly 80 days away from turning 40, he is just 21 wickets away from 1,000 first class wickets at an average of 26 and who brought up his 10,000th first class run against Yorkshire while picking up a first innings five-fer and picking up match figures of 8-126. Ok, so he hasn’t been as prolific as Ramprakash in his elder years (few could be) but he has averaged around 25 with the ball in six of his last eight seasons which is by no means disgraceful and he will probably end up with more wickets than either Andy Caddick or Darren Gough-his great rivals in the England set-up. If Ramprakash continues to remain the epitome of batting excellence as an elder statesman, surely Cork’s continued success after over 20 years in County Cricket make him very much the pace bowling equal of his former England team-mate.

2)      Ed Joyce is the form Irish batsmen

Once upon a time it was Ed Joyce who was the Irish batsmen upon whom England relied. He began in trying circumstances, flourished enough to score a century against Australia before ultimately having it end in ignominy at the 2007 World Cup. Three years in the wilderness forced Joyce to seek a return to Irish colours, embittered by the lack of opportunities provided to him by England selectors.

His World Cup form on his return to Ireland action was disappointing, but this season he has sparkled for Sussex as they continue to defy the critics in Division One.

Ed Joyce: The form of the Irish

Two centuries, two fifties and an average of nearly 60 have played a key part for Sussex so far this season as he has confirmed his status as one of the best batsmen around. Certainly he is the form Irish batsmen, quite something considering the talents of Morgan. But while it will surely be Morgan in contention for an England place this summer it is Joyce, the man who has turned his back on his adopted country, who is the form batsman from the Emerald Isle.

3)      Glamorgan are showing signs of life

It’s fair to say that this winter was no ordinary winter for Glamorgan. Captain and coach left, their best young batsman soon followed and their form batsman of the previous season found himself being told that he was not required to return. In came Alviro Petersen as captain and Matthew Mott, the former New South Wales coach, as the club’s board attempted to appease supporter unrest with some big name appointments and talk of a brave new era at the club. It’s fair to say things have not exactly started swimmingly for the captain and coach as Petersen and his team’s form has fluctuated badly with defeats against Essex and Leicestershire offset by a fighting draw against Surrey and wins against Gloucestershire and now Kent.

Yet the signs of life are growing, certainly though one would excuse Glamorgan fans from being overly optimistic as one of the longer suffering set of fans. Their bowling attack is proving potent with James Harris continuing to develop at a handy rate of knots, Will Owen and Adam Shantry taking wickets and Dean Cosker continuing to thrive as one of the country’s more underrated left-arm spinners by taking 23 wickets already on early season wickets. But their batting needs work, as they have scored just one century all season and appear to lack the bulk of runs provided for them last year by Cosgrove with Petersen struggling to strike a balance between captaincy and good batting form. Yet the fears for the club’s form in the County Championship after their winter of discontent are slowly being put to bed, as the Petersen era is finally getting up off the ground.

4)      The students can give lessons too

This was surely not the way in which Kevin Pietersen envisaged his return to first class cricket, captaining one of the few County sides who have been beaten by a University side-indeed the first at Fenners where the County team have been dismissed in the second innings since 1982. And he fell to a left-arm spinner, surely rounding off a fairly miserable match.

Granted, Pietersen apart, this was a weak Surrey XI but this was still a major coup for a Cambridgeshire side comprised entirely of students and containing only a handful of players on the books of counties including Surrey’s own Zafar Ansari and Warwickshire’s Paul Best. They didn’t just win, but they won handsomely by almost an innings as they outbowled and outbatted their County counterparts and in truth looked much the better team throughout. For once it was nice to see the students, so often the butt of plenty of cutting remarks regarding the first class status of their matches, giving County cricketers a lesson. Proof that the kid’s can be alright after all when given half a chance.

5)      Controversy will always overshadow class

I’m not going to debate the faults of modern journalism, there’s just no point. Salacious incidents and controversies nowadays will forever generate the headlines and overshadow the more mundane, and yet perhaps worthwhile stories which accompany them. It’s the modern media for you. Yet it still seems a shame when moments of inimitable class can get overshadowed by controversy and it happens all too often.

A Mohammad Yousuf masterclass gets overshadowed

Take this weekend’s match between Warwickshire and Worcestershire for example. This game will always be remembered for the wrong reasons: Worcestershire losing three men to injury, the ECB pitch inspectors declaring the pitch unfit and Warwickshire being punished for it. Yet along the way there were some rare moments of class amidst a pitch which played almost like a minefield. Take for instance the first innings hundred and second innings half century by Mohammad Yousuf, an innings which stuck out like a sore thumb and confirmed that despite his advancing years, his touch of class still remains. Think also of 20-yeard old Chris Metters, who on debut took 6-65 in his first ever Championship match. These are moments where class deserves due acclaim, and yet they find it overshadowed by controversy, as is all too often the case.

Matt Prior Is Proving His Point after England One Day Snub

Were England fans to name a potential Test XI for the Ashes opener in the winter then few, if any, would argue with the choice of Matt Prior behind the stumps. After years of chopping and changing in the wake of Geraint Jones’ slump in form, it is a strange, yet comfortable situation to be in.

Not that England are short of quality keepers, including Surrey’s Steven Davies, the aforementioned Jones who has enjoyed something of a batting renaissance, Essex’s James Foster and the rising star of England’s T20 victory Craig Kieswetter.

Proving a point to the England selectors

Yet such has been the form of Prior since his return to the England fold, with huge improvements in his wicket-keeping courtesy of sustained work with Bruce French complimenting a batting ability which is manifested in a more than satisfactory test average of 40.

But, the steady rise of Prior since his return to the team hit a snag, when he was dumped from the One Day and T20 teams in favour of Kieswetter.

The endorsement from Flower, who likened the Sussex player to Australian batsman Michael Slater, was hardly flattering, and Prior left with the words: “He has had a lot of opportunities up the order in one-day cricket and has not quite grasped them, and has consequently been playing a role in the middle order.”

That much is true, if the benchmark of a One Day International player is 30 games, then Prior at 55 international games ought to be settled-but his statistics (average 25, 2 fifties, 0 hundreds) do not bear this out. However in mitigation he has been shunted throughout batting line-up’s in various guises which has hardly helped his cause.

In truth the decision was as much an acknowledgement that Kieswetter, a bigger hitter of a ball-whereas Prior tends to be a much purer timer-fulfils the role of pinch-hitter at the top of the order with much greater authority than Prior does.

But such a stance has led some to speculate whether Prior’s long-term future as Test keeper may be under threat, however like he did when he was first dropped by England, Prior appears to have heeded the lessons and learnt quickly from them.

Upon his return to Sussex, where he has always fulfilled the role of pinch-hitting all-rounder with great aplomb, Prior has appeared right at home and taken on the mantle with genuine gusto-sending a message that perhaps England may yet rue dropping him so quickly.

In the T20 competition so far this year, he has scored 320 runs in eight innings-only nine runs behind David Hussey, the leading run scorer, having played two games less. Furthermore a strike-rate up near 180 shows he is more than capable of scoring the quick runs needed at the start of an innings. The highlight of his campaign so far was a thrilling 115 off just 55 balls against Glamorgan.

Clearly Prior is sending a message, and one he was more than happy to endorse when he spoke to Cricinfo this week, and said: “It’s a frustration because you want to be there but they’ve gone for a different balance with the wicketkeeper opening the batting and at the time I wasn’t opening.

“Now it’s down to me. I’m back opening in one-day cricket for Sussex, which I enjoy and it’s the most natural spot for me, and I have a lot belief in my ability. Now I’ve got to score a lot of runs and keep knocking on the door.

“I’ve known that if I want to be the England keeper I have to be the best out there, and if someone comes in a does better I have to raise my game.”

While England may be looking to stick with Kieswetter as wicket keeper/batsman for the foreseeable future, especially in light of their T20 success, few would doubt Prior will not be far behind.

And his recent form for Sussex suggests that, as he has throughout, Prior is intent on proving a point to the selectors.