Sussex’s latest overseas signings offer more questions than answers

Sussex announced two overseas signings for the 2024 season last week, but with three key pieces of the puzzle still to fit, they remain in limbo ahead of a big year.
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For a side with big ambitions for 2024, Sussex have been conspicuously unhurried about their business this off-season. And now the news that opener Ali Orr is joining Sussex will come as another big setback to their plans.

The club had pacified long-suffering fans with the captures of Danny Lamb and Chris Wright back in June, but with the Wright deal scrapped, it was back to square one.

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Without a clear statement on which experienced bowler the club would turn to after Wright, nor on whether captain Cheteshwar Pujara would be returning to the club next summer, a familiar vacuum of clarity reopened over Hove.

Jayden Seales of the West Indies bowls to Steve Smith of Australia at Perth last December (Photo by COLIN MURTY/AFP via Getty Images)Jayden Seales of the West Indies bowls to Steve Smith of Australia at Perth last December (Photo by COLIN MURTY/AFP via Getty Images)
Jayden Seales of the West Indies bowls to Steve Smith of Australia at Perth last December (Photo by COLIN MURTY/AFP via Getty Images)

This is something that is yet to go away, despite a big announcement about two new overseas signings.

Jayden Seales and Nathan McAndrew were unveiled by the club on respective two-month deals last week, with West Indies international Seales making his second attempt at a Sussex stint following a serious knee injury in 2023, while his erstwhile replacement, McAndrew, returns after a promising first year at Hove.

Neither signing offers the certainty required in the squad, however.

Overseas issues

Nathan McAndrew of Sussex during day one of  the LV= Insurance County Championship Division 2 match between Glamorgan and Sussex at Sophia Gardens last June (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)Nathan McAndrew of Sussex during day one of  the LV= Insurance County Championship Division 2 match between Glamorgan and Sussex at Sophia Gardens last June (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Nathan McAndrew of Sussex during day one of the LV= Insurance County Championship Division 2 match between Glamorgan and Sussex at Sophia Gardens last June (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Contrary to a county like Durham, who had the luxury of dropping seven overseas players into their County Championship side during 2023 without disrupting their momentum, Sussex are not blessed with a current framework for success.

The club’s youthful squad have required support and patience to show their full potential, with James Coles, Tom Clark and Oli Carter beginning to find their flow.

Note that these three are batsmen, however, with the bowlers more prone to peaks and troughs.

The likes of Henry Crocombe, Sean Hunt and Jamie Atkins did not display the improvements expected of them in 2023, and while there will be reviews of bowling coach James Kirtley’s output, this is where longer deals for experienced heads are of immediate use.

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Centrally contracted England players Ollie Robinson and Jofra Archer cannot be expected to appear any more frequently than they did this season – three times in Robinson’s case, and none in Archer’s – while Farbrace has not indicated full confidence in his other bowlers for various reasons.

Crocombe remains prone to expensive spells, Hunt spent much of 2023 out of the side, Atkins is currently frozen out, Brad Currie has recently been reduced to a T20-only contract and as for Ari Karvelas, it remains to be seen whether he will be reintegrated after a lengthy investigation into alleged comments made against Leicestershire.

Besides these qualms, the headline about Kirtley’s bowling stock is that there is still no senior head.

Neither Seales nor McAndrew should be considered the attack’s spearhead in 2024, with the 22-year-old Trinidadian completely untested on English surfaces and McAndrew rarely shouldering such responsibility elsewhere.

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With funds freed up by the farewells of Steven Finn, George Garton and Ravi Bopara, therefore, Farbrace should have been able to nail down the experienced seamer he said he wanted by now.

That he has not suggests that initial choices, including Jake Ball – who has since signed for Division One side Somerset – have not worked out.

Considering Sussex have already raided relegated Middlesex for wicket-keeper John Simpson, it also seems unlikely there would be any move for the out-of-contract Toby Roland-Jones.

With Seales and McAndrew only committing for two months apiece, Sussex need a paceman they can count on from April to September, but that seems far off at present.

Simpson for skipper?

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We must touch upon Simpson, too, given that rumours have begun to circulate of the 35-year-old – who was only signed in October – taking the Sussex captaincy for 2024.

Given Farbrace’s previous indications that he would prefer one skipper for all three formats, Simpson – who has been a regular for Middlesex’s T20 and One Day sides for 15 years – would be a logical fit.

Being offered the captaincy would also provide greater context for why Simpson left the Lord’s-based county – besides their mounting financial issues – and if it were to happen, it would have another positive in that the ever-improving Carter would likely keep a place in the team, albeit as a specialist batsman.

However, both of these situations are very much hypothetical and entirely conditional on the event of Pujara’s non-return – which has been strongly tipped by some figures.

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Given that there was no hint that Simpson would become captain when he was unveiled either, there could be distinct bad blood if Sussex fans get the impression they were being initially misled.

Pujara: too big a risk to let go?

Just a month or two into the 2023 season, any suggestion that Pujara would not be back again would have been ludicrous.

After an opening-round win against Durham and draws that could have easily been victories against Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Leicestershire, there was great optimism that an eight-year wait to escape Division Two could finally be ended, with a supreme Pujara at the forefront.

The Indian exemplified his class with three centuries and a 50 in the first five matches of the season, with an imperious ability to go through the gears and guide an innings.

From here, however, his stock fell considerably.

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A four-match absence proved to be a farce, having been expected to take part in India’s Test tour of the West Indies after the World Test Championship Final, only to be dropped after a below-par time against Australia and playing in the Duleep Trophy after Sussex already agreed a deal with Henry Shipley as cover.

Two indifferent games with the bat followed on his return, and the 12-point deduction for various misdemeanours against Leicestershire – fairly or unfairly lodged at Pujara’s door – saw his season end early.

In any other season, and under any other head coach, these may be forgiven as unfortunate circumstances.

Farbrace is less willing than his predecessors to accept mediocrity for long, however, and it appears that when it comes to a captain, he wants a man who will be on the ground when it matters.

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The same goes for Bopara, who was the best player in Sussex’s T20 side but whose poor captaincy simply did not justify his wage.

Of course, the threat of releasing high-level performers is that they will take their skills elsewhere and flourish.

That Pujara has not signed for another county so far suggests either that Sussex’s period of negotiating is being respected, or that it is becoming harder to justify a big-money overseas signing if they will not become captain.

The only other counties searching for a four-day captain are Glamorgan, Warwickshire, and Pujara’s former sides Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, with the latter two of that list the more conceivable options for the 35-year-old to join next.

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It would, however, be a travesty for Sussex to lose one of their most capable batsmen of the last 20 years and a performer of such excellent demeanour and class.

Pujara is a supreme asset on and off the field, attracting huge international interest for the club, and if he is to be replaced, then any new captain would surely have to emulate that.

Make no mistake; it is a supremely tricky task to build a successful side in the era of global franchise cricket.

Fabrace, the club’s cricketing committee and an as-yet unappointed chief executive officer to replace the outgoing Rob Andrew have a huge task on their hands to get this side ready to compete in 2024, and while time is still on Sussex’s side, it will not be long before other sides have their plans sorted.

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Sussex are competing in a stacked field and need to show great skill to complete the puzzle – one that they hope will lead them back into Division One by the end of 2024.

After all - a new captain, or two, an experienced seamer, and an ambitious new CEO?

It is not much to ask for…

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