There is a buzz around Sussex ahead of the 2018 season.
That is partly thanks to the arrival of new head coach Jason Gillespie, who led Yorkshire to back-to-back County Championships in 2014 and 2015, but also thanks to the sense that their exciting squad could be set to achieve something special.
2017 was a year of transition for the Hove side and, as such, Sussex failed to really compete for honours. They finished fifth in the group stages of both the Royal London One-Day Cup and the T20 Blast, therefore missing out on a knockout place.
The Championship brought more positivity as they threatened to challenge for promotion from Division Two at stages throughout the season, ultimately finishing fourth – just 26 points adrift of second-placed Nottinghamshire.
Sussex can also be encouraged by individual performances in the Championship. Opener Luke Wells finished as Division Two’s top scorer, racking up 1292 runs including four centuries.
And Jofra Archer ended the season as the third-highest wicket taker, his 62 scalps coming at an impressive average of 25.29. The rapid 23-year-old seamer has gone on to have an exceptional winter, with eye-catching displays in Australia’s Big Bash for the Hobart Hurricanes earning him an £800,000 IPL contract with the Rajasthan Royals.
That contract will rule him out of Sussex’s start to the season but, when he returns, Archer will be a key weapon for Gillespie’s side, especially in the T20 Blast where the Sharks will hope to be among the main contenders.
Certainly few will boast a better bowling attack in the shortest form. Archer will be joined by England T20 regular Chris Jordan and Tymal Mills, who is restricted to T20 due to injury, to form one of the quickest pace attacks in world cricket.
Add to that the signing of the world’s number one bowler in T20 cricket, Afghanistan leg-spinner Rashid Khan, for the Vitality Blast and Sussex are set to be among the most feared teams in the competition.
The youthful nature of Gillespie’s squad is cause for great excitement among Sussex supporters. Older, experienced names in Chris Nash and Steve Magoffin have been moved on, allowing increased opportunities for their younger stars.
In the likes of George Garton, Stu Whittingham and Ollie Robinson they have a raft of promising young seamers, while Harry Finch and Michael Burgess will want to build on encouraging 2017 campaigns with the bat.
Delray Rawlins, the 20-year-old spinner and destructive batsman, is another to keep an eye on after shining during the North v South series over the winter.
The task for marshalling such talent falls to Ben Brown who succeeds Luke Wright as permanent Championship and 50-over skipper, with Wright leading the side in the T20 Blast.
Sussex have every reason to be confident of success in 2018. Despite a tough Division Two, with Middlesex and Warwickshire aiming for instant top-flight returns, they have the squad to be pushing for promotion.
In the white-ball formats, their bowling attack could fire them to glory and if the batsmen can put runs on the board, Sussex are genuine contenders for silverware this season.
Outs: Steve Magoffin (Worcestershire), Chris Nash (Nottinghamshire)
As one of the most exciting talents in world cricket, Jofra Archer is Sussex’s main weapon. He has proven his ability to perform across all formats, with his Championship displays last year backed up by incredible performances in the Big Bash.
Sussex will miss the just-turned 23-year-old during the opening weeks of the season, but they have the bowlers to cope and his return will only enhance their chances of competing across all three competitions.
One to Watch
After a winter where England cricket fans were lamenting the lack of pace and dynamism in the Test match bowling attack, 20-year-old George Garton is a player to keep an eye on. He was called up to the England squad as cover for their final Ashes warm-up match and it’s clear to see why he is on their radar.
A left-arm seamer capable of consistently hitting 90mph, comparisons to Australia’s Mitchell Starc have been easy to make. Garton could be a big factor in helping Sussex take 20 wickets on a regular basis this season.
Rashid Khan has joined Sussex for the T20 Blast campaign while India seamer Ishant Sharma is the overseas signing for the early stages of the County Championship. He will provide a significant boost to the side in the absence of IPL-bound Archer during his spell at the club until June 4th.
How they’ll fare
Many will, justifiably, pick Middlesex out as the firm favourites for the Division Two title, but Sussex have every reason to believe they can be the promotion shake-up come September.
Much will depend on Wells reproducing the runs he notched last season, with extra pressure on him following Nash’s departure. If they can consistently post solid totals, the variety and strength-in-depth of their bowling options could catapult Sussex into the top two. Their opening fixture at Edgbaston could tell us a lot about their prospects.
The Sharks will want to reach the knockout stages of both white-ball competitions as a bare minimum. From there, once again the bowling should prove their main weapon and there is no reason to believe a challenge for both the One-Day Cup and T20 Blast is out of the question.
SSCC Div Two v Warwickshire, Friday 13th April at Edgbaston
SS County Championship Division Two: 5/1
Royal London One-Day Cup: 10/1
Vitality T20 Blast: 12/1