Henry Blofeld: Sussex have never known anything like winning the Championship

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The Independent Online

Six times since 1890, when only eight sides took part, Sussex have finished in second place in the County Championship and never until this year have they had such an excellent chance of winning the competition. They need only six bonus points from their last game. The reasons for their wonderful season have been comprehensively diagnosed and explored in these columns by Angus Fraser and others, but what seems likely to be the most momentous season in their history must also allow time for nostalgia.

There is an inborn character about Sussex cricket, which has always had a touch of dash about it, just as there is a unique redolence about their lovely old ground at Hove. It may be more ramshackle than some, but the deckchairs at the north end and the old faithfuls who sit and watch come rain, wind, sea-fret or sunshine, help to give Sussex cricket its familiar flavour.

Success did not come easily in the first few years when the side was under the command of Sir C Aubrey (Round-the- Corner) Smith, so nicknamed because of the way in which he bowled his medium paced off cutters from around the wicket, starting his run in front of mid off. He went on in middle age to find fame and fortune in Hollywood, which won him his knighthood.

This idiosyncratic character set the fashion for the arrival of Ranjitsinhji and CB Fry soon afterwards. In their vastly different ways, both as men and as stylists at the crease, they played the game with a benevolently patrician, not to say nose-in-the-air, autocratic approach to it all.

In 1902 and 1903 they saw Sussex finish in second place. In the first of these years Ranji, the captain who will have been keen to be in his butt on the grouse moor on 12 August, fell out with some of his side and only played in 11 of the 24 games while Fry also missed seven. This suggests that, if they had been rather more single-minded, Sussex might not have had to wait until 2003.

Their right-hand men in these years were Joe Vine, George Cox Senior and Fred Tate. Vine, who opened the batting - with Fry with whom he put on 33 opening partnerships of more than a hundred - also bowled leg breaks, while Cox made 14,000 runs and took nearly 2,000 wickets with his left arm at medium pace. Tate took more than 150 wickets and, in 1902, played his only Test at Old Trafford when Victor Trumper made a hundred before lunch, hitting the ball so hard that Archie MacLaren protested that he could not put his fielders on the practice ground.

In spite of the Gilligan brothers, Arthur and Harold, who both captained England, and Maurice Tate, whose seam bowling was second to none, Sussex were slow to get off the mark after the Great War, but, by the time the 1930s had arrived, they were once more a force to be reckoned with. They again finished in third place, for three consecutive seasons from 1932 to 1934.

For the first two of these they were captained by Ranji's nephew, KS Duleepsinhji, although by the end of the second season Duleep had contracted the tuberculosis that was to kill him at the early age of 54. The brothers, Jim and John Langridge, and Harry and old Jim Parks, in addition to George Cox Junior, were the mainstays of that side and Tate still played an important part. In 1937 Jim Parks became the only man ever to have made 3,000 runs and taken 100 wickets in the same season. It is an unimaginable feat today.

For 1934, the captaincy had passed on to Alan Melville, who later played for South Africa, but in 1932 and 1933 they could not get past Yorkshire and it was Lancashire who won in 1934, the last time they won the Championship outright. Sussex did not have quite the muscle to match their northern foes.

They again finished in second place in 1953 under the captaincy of David Sheppard in his last season before he took Holy Orders. The captain scored seven hundreds while Jim Parks Junior, the son of Old Jim, Ian Thomson, Alan Oakman, Ken Suttle - who broke Vine's record of playing in 421 consecutive Championship matches when he notched up 423 - and Robin Marlar were his main lieutenants. Suttle, a small left-hander, toured the West Indies under Len Hutton in 1953-54 without playing in a Test Match.

In the early sixties, Sussex were again highly competitive when they had players of the calibre of Ted Dexter and the Nawab of Pataudi with Thomson still taking a hundred wickets most seasons and Parks piling on the runs.

A young man called John Snow also burst upon the scene and went on to become one of the best two or three fast bowlers England have produced since the Second War.

The individual character that has always epitomised Sussex was still there, but infuriatingly for their supporters among whom was the Duke of Norfolk, the builder of that wonderful ground at Arundel, they never won the principle prize.

Under Dexter, they won the Gillette Cup in its first two years in 1963 and 1964 and again in 1978, and then in 1986 when it been translated into the NatWest Trophy. If all goes well over the next few days, it is safe to say that Hove will never have known anything like it.