In all my years in county cricket I haven't experienced anything as nerve-shredding as last Saturday as we Sussex players – having beaten Worcestershire – waited to hear if Lancashire could defeat Surrey and steal the County Championship from our hands.
I had actually been looking forward to knocking Worcestershire over in the morning and then putting my feet up, relaxing and watching it all unfold. But it was horrible and that was because of Lancashire, who were awesome in their efforts to chase down such a large target – 489 – that had been set by Surrey at The Oval.
Their game was on Sky and all week, during our match, I had been asking the team not to put it on if we came off for bad light or breaks, saying we had to concentrate on us. Ironically, when we did want to sit down and watch it on Saturday it was only on Sky Interactive which we couldn't get at Hove so the players had to rely on radios.
There were a few fans hanging around and the numbers grew as lots who had gone to watch Brighton play football came back to the ground as the drama unfolded. So as it got tense there were about 700 fans listening to portable radios and the Lancashire score was being put up on our scoreboard. I'd invited all the players' families and some sponsors into the viewing gallery so it was full of kids and grannies and the like and it just multiplied the tension. It became unbearable, I was so nervous I retreated to the changing room to listen to the wickets fall; there were five of us in the inner sanctum huddled round the radio. We'd hear the huge roars when Lancashire lost a wicket and when the 10th fell – that of Dominic Cork (who else could put us through the wringer like that but him?) – it was such a relief. It was a fitting finish to a cracking title race – easily the best I've been involved in.
I had been in touch with Ian Salisbury, my mate who plays for Surrey, during their match, urging him to take a few wickets and I told him to give Mark Ramprakash an extra big pat on the back for getting over 300 runs in the game. I nearly told him to strangle his captain, Mark Butcher, though, for declaring and setting Lancashire a target.
But Butch can take a great deal of credit for being bold as it gave Lancs a sniff of winning and therefore increased Surrey's chances of victory, too. And it created that thrilling finish.
I had prepared for both outcomes and probably more for Lancs to win it so I couldn't believe we'd retained the title, our third in five seasons. The first Championship, and Sussex's first ever, was amazing, a goal shared by everyone at the club. After winning the second I felt huge relief because Lancs had pushed us all the way. But the third felt like a personal triumph after the Yorkshire dalliance at the start of the season. I couldn't have been happier.
Also everything seemed to conspire against us this season but I was adamant we would only focus on what we could control. There were England call-ups, a broken finger to Mike Yardy, the poor weather which meant at not a ball was bowled at The Oval. My record with tosses was only 50-50 (when we won the title two years ago I won 12 out of 16) so to do it without all those things going for me was brilliant.
When I feared we'd blown it...
We lost consecutive games early in the season: our usual defeat against our bogey team on our bogey ground, Warwickshire at Edgbaston, and followed that with a loss at Canterbury and I thought we'd ruined our title chances. Against Kent we thought we only had to turn up to take the points but they bowled us out twice for very little.
After that game we had a long team meeting and I asked the players to respond. Words mean very little at these points and it was only by our actions that things could be put right and the preparation and response was spot on. Our next game was against Surrey at Hove and we were made to follow on but managed to save the game by batting for four-and-a-half sessions. Murray Goodwin got a double ton and I got a hundred. We fought and refused to lie down and it felt like a turning point for us.
... the game that won it
Our match against Lancashire at Liverpool was massive and such a crucial win for us. It was the best game of the season in terms of quality with lots of stars on show. There were some big performances in terms of character if not figures (no centuries were made). It was two heavyweights exchanging punches. Freddie Flintoff was back from injury for Lancs and was restricted to four-over spells, which were the quickest I've seen him. 'Fiery' summed it up.
But we bowled them out in the fourth innings for a low score to win it and at that moment I felt we could win the title again. The key moment in that fourth innings was Lancashire's Stuart Law succumbing to the best catch of my career. Law has been our nemesis down the years – he loves run-making against us. There are always key wickets in a match, it's like when Graeme Hick comes out to bat you worry and think 'he's got over 100 hundreds so could easily get another one'. We are never sure how to get Law out so when I hung on to a diving, one-handed slip catch we sensed we'd done them. It was a massive moment.
This season we veered from ordinary to scintillating but it was at moments when we needed to rise to the challenge that we did and I see no reason why, with our developing team, we can't make it three in three next year.
My End of Season Awards
Most improved team
We lost the toss at Durham, they chose to bowl on a spicy wicket and threw the lot at us, their full bowling artillery. We still managed to get to 291 and I was happy. But they blew us away in that game and announced themselves as a proper side that I now respect much more than I did previously.
Best youngster at Sussex...
Most people would expect me to say Luke Wright, who was called up to England duty for the Twenty20 World Cup, but being a controversial so-and-so I'm going for Andrew Hodd who came in to replace Matt Prior behind the stumps. With bat and gloves he was superb, settled immediately, and turned into a proper batsman. He also got his first Championship century.
... and elsewhere
England's opening batsman Alastair Cook looks pure class. It is not often you see it. You see good players but there is a difference about him – it makes you stop and watch.
Golden old 'un at Sussex...
Mushtaq Ahmed, our spin king, would obviously be up there but I'm going to chose our batsman Richard Montgomerie, who has now retired at the ripe old age of 36. Once again he scored valuable runs but gets the award because he has fielded at short-leg for Mushy and has been amazing, taking some blinding catches. He is the best in the world in that position and the best that has ever lived. Not many who have seen him would disagree. He also got 82 in his last knock to take him to 1,000 Championship runs for the season.
... and elsewhere
Ottis Gibson, who tore in like an 18-year-old all season, did more than anyone to ensure Durham had their best season to date. He was fantastic.
Best innings by a Sussex player...
Matt Prior's hundred on his England debut against the West Indies at Lord's was superb and true to his attacking spirit. We were delighted for him.
... and against Sussex
Rob Key's knock against us in the Twenty20 semi-final was special and led to us being knocked out. That was the biggest disappointment of the season for me. After all the build-up and at last reaching finals day, to fall at the first hurdle was upsetting. Our one-day cricket needs to improve.
Every time our conditioning coach, Ben Haining, refereed our morning football matches he would make Roy Keane seem mild-mannered. Talk about officious. His weird and wonderful decisions led to many a blue word and many a red card.
At the end of last season I was upset Mushy did not win the PCA Player of the Year when Ramps, who hit 2,000 Second Division runs, got it. I felt 100 First Division wickets was a better achievement. But fair play to Ramps who has done it again in the top flight. He gets better each season. If only he was a bit younger England would be laughing.
I must also mention Mushy, who was put through the mill with Bob Woolmer's death during the World Cup but has been brilliant again this year. It is testament to our close-knit club that he and his family felt they wanted to be in Hove rather than Lahore after those events. As a captain I haven't asked more of a player. On the last day against Worcestershire he had nothing left, but his belligerence and desire kept him going. People talk about Warne and Murali but Mushy plays a full season – he doesn't spend two weeks in a villa in Portugal during the Twenty20s like Warne. This year he took his 100th five-for and for five years has been the leading wicket-taker in first-class cricket. He has also just signed a two-year deal, which is fantastic.
I'm going to run him into the ground!Reuse content