Nearly three years have passed since Sussex first assembled their galáctico T20 bowling lineup, comprising Jofra Archer, Chris Jordan, Tymal Mills and Rashid Khan. It is an attack that would be the envy of any limited-overs side in the world, but so far the club has nothing to show for it, with defeats in consecutive home quarter-finals following a tight loss in the 2018 final.
In practice, their all-stars have rarely been available simultaneously. They have played together in only four completed games, with international duty limiting their availability, but with Khan re-signing, the prospect remains on the table for the 2021 season. With Luke Wright, Ravi Bopara and Phil Salt – as well as this season’s breakout stars George Garton and Delray Rawlins – also under contract, and David Wiese re-signing on Friday, it is no surprise that expectations on the South Coast are high.
“It’s a very high-class outfit,” says James Kirtley, appointed last week as the club’s new head coach for the T20 Blast following Jason Gillespie’s departure. “We have a pretty global profile in our T20 side with some of those names. I’m very aware that it’s a minimum requirement to get that home quarter-final.”
The job is Kirtley’s first as a head coach in county cricket, and one that he will split with another club stalwart in Ian Salisbury. Salisbury will take charge of the County Championship and 50-over sides with Kirtley working as his assistant, with those roles reversed during the block of the season reserved for the Blast. The pair have previously worked together in a number of different roles for England’s women’s and physical disability sides, and most recently as assistant coaches at Sussex.
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Sussex are the third county to hire a specialist T20 head coach, after Derbyshire (John Wright, then Dominic Cork) and Middlesex (Daniel Vettori), and Kirtley said that the decision to split the roles had been a “collaborative effort”, informed by the differences in personnel between formats. Sussex were due to lose more players than any other county during the Hundred this summer before its postponement, and as a result, are expecting to field a young, developmental side during the Royal London Cup which runs simultaneously.
He also suggested that in splitting the head coach role between Andy Flower and Ashley Giles from 2012-14 – which Giles admitted last year was “not a great period” for either of them – England were “quite possibly” ahead of their time.
“We’re not going to go down the full Moneyball route, because we have players with gut instincts that I trust in and I would always allow them to go with that, but if I can provide a little bit of extra information to help them, then brilliant”
Kirtley hopes his side can balance thorough preparation with sharp instinct
“I think it’s quite apparent that we have two very different sides,” he says. “The two sides are pretty different, and the skills required to lead those two sides as coaches are equally different. Sals is a bit more experienced [than me] and because of that, and the perspective he has, he’ll probably deal well with developing a young side. I get to cut my teeth with the T20 side where it’s about delivering performance and managing the environment.
“When you have such a difference in the sides, it does lend itself to that split. Derbyshire do it with Corky, but I don’t know if he’s always around for the rest of the season, and Middlesex did it with Dan Vettori who flew in and out. So it’s slightly different [for Sussex] in that the chats and communication aren’t as short-term.”
Kirtley says that his primary focus in the role will be on how to get Sussex playing “a little bit smarter” as a side. He suggests that he will largely entrust Wright – the club’s white-ball captain and a team-mate of his when Sussex won their only Twenty20 Cup in 2009 – with running the show on the pitch, but sees himself adding value by helping to inform decision-making.
“It’s about figuring out how we can be a little bit smarter,” he explains. “T20 comes down to fine margins. If we can make crunch decisions in a slightly smarter way, hopefully that makes the difference for us and allows us to go that much further than we’ve done in the last 10 years or so.
“It’s no secret that data is prevalent now in the game, [but] I’m very lucky in that I’ve got Luke captaining the side who is a hugely experienced T20 cricketer – he has a really good gut instinct on things. And if we were to put out a bowling attack with Archer, Mills, Jordan, Rashid Khan, Garton, [Ollie] Robinson, [Will] Beer – they’re all hugely successful in their own right and make good decisions.
“My role is probably to help them have more clarity on the pitch in crunch times when those decisions are put under the spotlight. We’ll chew over little ideas: we’re not going to go down the full Moneyball route, because we have players with gut instincts that I trust in and I would always allow them to go with that, but if I can provide a little bit of extra information to help them, then brilliant.”
Sussex were due to return to pre-season training on Monday, but are now planning for December 2 with the UK back in lockdown. That has allowed Kirtley and Salisbury to “get things and ideas in place”, with discussions ongoing about the identity of potential signings after the departures of Danny Briggs, Laurie Evans and Luke Wells. While the majority of the squad will be at home for the winter, Wright is heading to Australia as part of the Melbourne Stars coaching squad, and Kirtley is hoping that he will return better after another year in his role.
“I see how Eoin Morgan fronts the England one-day team and I see Luke in exactly the same way with us,” Kirtley says. “He’s played around the world, and this winter he’ll be rubbing shoulders with more successful players and coaches.
“Luke and I got on brilliantly as team-mates back in the day. We used to have a lot of fun playing in a successful side together and it’s brilliant rekindling that relationship. Having experienced that success as team-mates, to do it again in this new partnership going forward would be brilliant.”
As the man who bowled the first ball in T20 history – an outswinger to Hampshire’s James Hamblin given as a wide – it would be fitting if Kirtley could become the first man to win England’s domestic competition as both a player and a coach.
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