A spate of injuries last year contributed to the club’s relegation from Division One of the County Championship and a winless 50-over campaign. The new team at the helm of the county, with Mark Davis as head coach and Luke Wright as captain, have worked their squad into the ground over the winter in order to ensure the same thing doesn’t hamper them again.
There appears to be a consensus at the top of the club that the team that ended 2015 under Mark Robinson weren’t as fit as they could have been, and thus the distinguishing feature of the new regime has been its rigorous approach to training.
A spot of winter sun sounds like the perfect tonic, but an intensive pre-season camp in south-east Spain allowed Davis to begin an overhaul of the team’s entire approach to physical preparation.
“We’ve put a big thing on fitness pre-season,” Davis said.
“Injuries were tough last year, they hit us at horrendous times. If we have so many injuries, we need to look at your physicality and make sure we don’t get injured. We’ve put the work in, you can’t put it in during the season- there’s not enough time- you’ve got to do it in pre-season and we’ve done that well.
“It’s been a tough winter, it’s been cold, it’s been wet, it’s been ugly but the guys have put the work in so hopefully it can pay off through the summer.”
Skipper Wright is already heartened by the progress already made by individuals towards targets set in the aftermath of last season.
“When I left in November, we spoke to the guys about the improvements we wanted to make physically and technically to our games,” Wright said.
“It’s been nice to come back and see people have put that in place. We’ve got to keep people fitter than we have before and credit to the guys, they’ve all worked really hard.”
The 31 year old believes that in recent seasons the demands placed on players seeking to break into the Sussex first-team have slackened from when he first emerged as a youngster in 2006.
“I think it’s been too easy to get into this side,” Wright said.
“When I came, demands on you were very high to even get a crack at it. It’s about the message you send down to the young sides that they need to be fit to get into this side. Sloppiness in terms of performances and physicality were starting to creep in and that’s something we’ve got to try and stamp out.”
Wright, who shone for Melbourne Stars in the Big Bash over the winter, sees at his disposal a team who are keen to learn and put right recent setbacks.
“In a way, I’m taking on the squad at their most vulnerable, when you’ve just gone down with a lot of young guys not having the results they wanted to personally. I think people take things on a bit easier than when they’re scoring runs and ahead of the game.
“It’s a squad that was listening.”
Under the direction of a new ship’s captain and first mate, the crew are invigorated by the clearing of the decks.
“All the players have loved it, to be honest,” said Ollie Robinson, after a breakthrough season that saw him banish bad memories of his sacking at Yorkshire.
“We’ve got a regime now where we train hard and in games we just relax and do what we do. Everything’s go to be 100% in training, you’ve got to treat it like it’s a game. When it comes to the game, you just do what you’re good at and leave it as it is.”
“It feels like we’ve got a new lease of life and it’s given us a bit of freedom.”
Ben Brown is an influential figure in the dressing-room and has been installed as Wright’s vice-captain.
“Mark has put a big emphasis on our fitness and our fielding which I think is a really good idea,” Brown said.
“I think we needed to improve in that area, so it’s been a really tough winter. Everyone’s work rate has gone through the roof as it tends to with a new start. Let nothing be taken away from what was done previously. They did the right thing as well, but sometimes you just have to freshen it up.”
Wright in particular is keen on viewing the development of this group of players in terms of a three-year plan. Their gruelling physical work is designed to come to fruition in three years’ time in a team that can thrive in the top tier.
He emphasised that bouncing back into Division One immediately is not the priority: “When Mark and I sat down at the end of the season we wanted to put a few things in place rather than set goals to win trophies.
“If the by-product of these changes is that we go up this year, fantastic. It’s not a case of just going down to come back up; if it takes us two years to be ready to challenge in the First Division then I’d rather do that. Obviously we want to go up but we want to go up when we’re ready.”
Although he seems to have been strident in establishing early on his team’s DNA, Davis’ personal style will surely continue to evolve.
What sort of coach will be in charge of Sussex this season?
“I’m very different to Mark Robinson in many ways,” Davis said. “I’ve had lots of good people to learn from and I’ll take the bits that I like from them and integrate that into my style, but I’ve certainly got my own style.
“We’ll see, I don’t know yet actually. I think I’ll be quite calm, quite level-headed. I’ll make sure I don’t get too emotional about things. I’ll make sure I keep consistency about me and keep giving the players confidence, that’s what I want to do.”
The South African is not intent on making major changes: “First and foremost, we’ve performed well as a club over the last ten years.
“It’s not as though we’re going to change everything around, that it’s going to be totally new, but we’ll certainly do things slightly differently. We’ll tweak a few things.”
Perhaps the biggest change at the county will be in the expectation of its team; quickly going from Division One underdogs to Division Two behemoths.
“We go in as favourites, I guess, which is not what we’re used to,” Crawley-born Brown said. “We’ve got to handle that expectation from our members and supporters who are quite rightly hoping we go up. It’s not going to be plain sailing- the squad are ready for that- and we know we have to improve if we expect to go up.”
Davis is undeterred by the scrutiny on his team, even in light of the sole promotion berth that is available into the top tier of four-day cricket.
“The expectation is there and we can’t get away from it,” he said. “We’re obviously a club that’s done particularly well in four-day cricket over the last decade so I guess the pressure’s there.
Back to that familiar refrain, at the forefront of Davis’ mind: “If we keep the players on the pitch, we’ll be right up there competing.”