Sussex at Saffrons is an event to cherish despite another defeat and chilly weather

Sussex Sharks V Gloucestershire at The Saffrons 5th May 2019 - David Wiese batting (Photo by Jon Rigby) SUS-190605-123213008
Sussex Sharks V Gloucestershire at The Saffrons 5th May 2019 - David Wiese batting (Photo by Jon Rigby) SUS-190605-123213008

Some you win, some you shrug your shoulders. In the previous two years since County Cricket returned to the Saffrons, we were thoroughly spoiled. May 2017 saw a baking hot day and even some early-summer sunburn, and last May was also warm and bright. Could we possibly hope for a third successive blazer?

Take nothing for granted. This is England, where Bank Holiday weather alternates, on a strict rota, between brilliantly glorious and bleakly grim. When the Easter weekend, just a fortnight earlier, brought record temperatures and fabulous blue skies, we must have known there would be a payback…

By last Sunday, fabulous blue had been replaced by slate grey, and temperatures felt closer to November than to May: a two-sweater day, if not three.

For the organisers, and especially for driving force Ian Fletcher-Price, this was tough. Preparations had been professional and thorough, as always, and the Saffrons had been transformed into an arena ready for top-class action. But taking cricket to the out-grounds is also a financial challenge and a bit of gamble. Sponsorship and gate receipts together can just about make it work, and the previous two events had seen crowds of well above 4,000.

This year, the loyal sponsors and businesses were back, and the core cricket supporters were sure to turn up, but some of the casual spectators stayed away. How exactly that affected the fine balance sheet, Fletch and his committee will now be assessing. But heck, let’s not be negative. County cricket is often played in front of much thinner crowds than this, and the Saffrons did us proud. Eastbourne, surely, is firmly back on the Sussex CCC map and calendar.

Gates were due to open at 9.00am, and by a quarter to nine there was already a queue of several dozen punters, eager to grab their favourite viewing positions, no doubt. You can tell the seasoned cricket-watchers a mile off, and it’s all in the preparation.

Ample lunch supplies for a long day ahead, cushion for protection against corrugated seating, sun cream for those who live in hope, Sunday newspaper to catch up on all the sport, and for the real experts, a pair of binoculars. Personally I never saw the value of the binoculars: by the time you have grabbed them and focused them, that distant outfield catch has been pouched or fumbled anyway.

For a couple of decades now, cricket has been tinkering with formats. The four-day County Championship survives, just about, and the Test series are, if anything, on an upward curve of popularity. Short forms of the game seem to appear almost annually – white balls and night games draw in large crowds, and we are about to see the launch of the shortest yet, the 100-ball version. But the Royal London One-Day Cup gets it about right. A full day of cricket, and enough time for fortunes to veer back and forth, and the potential for a thrilling finish.

Sussex welcomed Gloucestershire for a pivotal group game. Both counties were still in contention for the top-three finish which would take them into the knock-out stages, but the losers at the Saffrons would be teetering. Local interest centred especially on Ben Brown, an Eastbourne Cricket Club favourite, and on Harry Finch, born and raised along the coast in Hastings.

Matt Salt, called up for the England one-day squad, was missing, and Sussex were indeed to miss him, along with the new rising star Jofra Archer. Cricket always revels in its memories, and Sussex cricket has its own hall of fame from Ted Dexter to Imran to Tony Greig. Shoulders of giants. But the current side is keen, vigorous, athletic, and eager to create its own fame.

Gloucestershire won the toss and, electing to bat, they put together something close to the perfect one-day innings. A steady opening partnership saw 40 scored off the first ten overs, and honours were still pretty even when the visitors reached 110 off twenty – or to be exact, one ball short of twenty, for on that last ball Sussex got the breakthrough of a wicket.

But a flat, placid track and relatively short boundaries were very inviting conditions for the batters, and they steadily opened the throttle. The home spinners, Beer and Briggs, knew they might have to buy their wickets, and Briggs in particular showed good flight and variation to tempt batsmen into false shots. But the seamers were bowling poorly and erratically, and Sussex were put to the sword.

Tucked in the press tent, I felt like a privileged visitor, surrounded by the guys who travel the length of the country following their sport. Next to me on one side, Ben the Sussex analyst and statistician was expertly crunching numbers – and this wonderful sport is a playground for statisticians. Gloucestershire’s Roderick had scored his first 25 runs all in singles: what, we wondered, was the world record total for an all-singles innings? Before we rooted out the answer, Roderick had ruined things by pinging a ball to long-off for two.

On my left, James the TCCB match supervisor had travelled all the way down from Yorkshire – “I rarely know where I’ll be next!” - and was seeking out local wisdom on routes back to the Dartford Tunnel. Unlike most other sports, cricket has that capacity for civilised conversation. Even the Sussex guys were unsure whether to call the southern end, as at Hove, the Sea End or the more locally correct Town End. And they were intrigued to know why Larkins is the Larkins End. Ask me later…

I ought to add, before regular Herald readers wonder why their football correspondent had even sneaked in here, that many of my student reporter days were misspent at the cricket festivals in Gloucester and Cheltenham. I once shared a press tent with the holy trinity of John Arlott, Peter West and Jim Swanton - although my main role that day seemed to be topping up the drinks tray.

But the press tent is a bit cloistered for a full day, so as Gloucestershire smashed their way to the lunch interval with a barrage of sixes, I headed out. By now, a superb 95 from opener Miles Hammond, and a blitzing 69 by Jack Taylor, had posted a daunting 345 total. The mass trespass on to the outfield had begun, with grandads playing a straight bat to their grandchildren’s off-spin, and local experts wandering out to take a look at the square and share their thoughts on the Sussex prospects.

On the far side of the playing arena, the official marquees were brimming with sponsors enjoying both sport and hospitality. On the popular side, people were chatting, eating, drinking and refusing to moan about the weather. Ale on tap, posh burgers, and a busy refreshment tent where, as every year, Angela Myall and her team were serving the best home-made cakes in Eastbourne. Only the ice-cream stall was looking under-subscribed and rather forlorn.

And former England wicketkeeper Jack Russell, always a man for the popular side and not the members’ pavilion, was selling his wonderful drawings and paintings, and happily exchanging opinions on the play-off prospects for his beloved Forest Green Rovers.

I took a few sounding from local fans, most of them fearing the worst for the Sussex innings, and sadly they were not wrong. It needed good foundation, but the home side lost early wickets. And it needed probably a couple of big individual scores, but by the time their new big personality David Wiese did set about the Glorse bowling, Sussex were already five down and falling well short.

The day and the innings ended, then, in disappointment on the field. But for local supporters, packing up those cushions and binoculars, there was satisfaction mixed in with the resignation of defeat. “We are back in the habit of Saffrons cricket,” reflected one stalwart as the players trooped off. “Fletch has brought the cricket back, and next year the weather gods will bring the sunshine back too!”