Reece Topley stands at the top of his mark. His former club Hampshire have 12 from two overs — a leisurely start chasing 189, but a start nonetheless. Topley strides in to start his second over, over the wicket, and bangs the ball in short. Aneurin Donald stands tall and pulls hard: six over the corporate boxes on the east side of Hove.
It is Topley’s first professional appearance for over a year, and he has been firmly dispatched into the warm evening sky seventh ball. He walks back to his mark, ready to go again. This is a challenge, no doubt, but mundane compared to his travails.
Aged just 25, his present stint at Sussex represents what is almost certainly his last opportunity as a professional cricketer. His talent is widely known — if only his body agreed.
Last July, after playing four matches for the England Lions in 11 days, Topley suffered a stress fracture in his back. A problem, for sure, but something a young man can recover from. Except this was his fourth.
“I was really scraping the barrel for motivation to be honest this time around,” he explains. “Because it was almost like Groundhog Day. And I think it was Einstein who said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Previously, that same thing over and over again had been rest, recuperation and injections to stop the pain. This time was different. This time, he sought surgery, having a titanium screw inserted into one of his vertebrae, and hoped for the best.
At the time, he had a one-year white-ball contract with Hampshire, which expired during his recovery period. Somewhat in limbo, unsure whether his career could have a future, he left the club by mutual agreement to take control of the road to his return.
“I did what was necessary, in my eyes, to be back on the park and playing again,” he says.
Topley’s journey since then has taken him to Australia, working with the Melbourne Renegades, through Lord’s with Middlesex and now to Hove. Jason Gillespie, the Sussex head coach, offered him a chance in January.
“He just said that everything could be very relaxed, everything’s at my disposal, I can use the facilities, the staff, everything like that. I’m very grateful for the opportunity that he handed and it’s been very good.
“It hasn’t been plain sailing ever since I got here even, but like I said you just keep positive and you just look after what’s ahead and what you can control.”
He and the Sussex staff put no timeframe on recovery, although they had hoped for a return to bowling early in the season. By mid-May, Topley was featuring for Reigate Priory in the Surrey Championship, where his ability to play six consecutive Saturdays without issue proved more important than the seven wickets he took.
“I was just guided by a pretty laissez-faire attitude,” he reflects. “As soon as I felt I could bowl again, I didn’t have a timeframe on it, I just got up one day and bowled.
“I just felt like the ability that one weekend I could play club cricket, [I] got called up to Reigate Llamas and I played for them and then suddenly I just said to the physio I’m ready for some second team.”
Four second team games later and he was picked to play in Sussex’s opening Vitality Blast match at Hampshire. The return was delayed because of rain, and five days later he was back in first team action — the same fixture, but with a home crowd behind him.
“It was nice to have the fans here behind you for once. I’m used to the small intense crowds at Chelmsford and it was just an electric atmosphere, and something that like I said I will definitely hold it as a highlight of my career so far.
“It’s something that I was doing as a job; wasn’t necessarily finding it fun how I was playing it. Now I’m out of pain and I’ve got good mates that I’m playing it with. It’s good fun so definitely got the bug back for the game.
“Once there’s the occasion and you’re in the heat of a battle, my mind almost clears and I’ve literally just got where I’m pitching it, what’s going to happen with the ball.
“It’s just what’s in front of you and that’s delivering the next ball and that’s all I focused on.” Certainly, that appeared the case on Wednesday evening.
Topley runs in, ball returned from out of the ground. Dot. In again. Back-of-a-length, it comes back at Donald and hits the pad. Finger goes up. Joy for Sussex.
James Vince comes to the crease. Dot first up. Back Topley goes, relaxed as you like. This time Vince looks to drive square of the wicket, but there’s an inside edge through to Ben Brown. 18-2.
Hampshire require a rebuilding job, and Sam Northeast is the ideal man for such a task. Topley has other ideas. He’s on a good length and quick first up, on middle stump. Northeast looks to drive through mid on, but makes no connection. Topley has changed the game.
Rilee Rossouw survives the hat-trick ball an over later. Topley takes a break, an over still to bowl, and returns for the 19th, where Hampshire are 163-9. A dot and a single to Mason Crane, and Kyle Abbott launches the ball for a straight six.
Another couple of twos, one of which comes with a dropped catch. It’s 15 needed from seven, and palpable tension fills Hove. Topley goes short, and Abbott pulls to deep midwicket. Rashid Khan makes no mistake. Elation in the stands.
Topley finished with 4-33, and took home the Player of the Match award — his first since 2012 for the England Under-19s. The biggest hurdle is behind him. If he can now remain fit, there will be plenty more rewards to come.
Great to see him back in action. Hopefully he and Mills can stay fit and push for England honours again.