Wells flying in the face of failure

County focus Dave Hadfield finds Sussex's bowlers have been carrying the team
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The Independent Online
IT HAS not been so much a case of Sussex by the sea as of Sussex all at sea for most of this year. From eighth in the County Championship last season to the last place they have occupied for much of this campaign amounts to a precipitous dive from the cliffs on to the cruel rocks below.

Before two badly needed victories over Worcestershire and Durham in August, Sussex's only wins were way back in May, over Kent and Essex. Some of the defeats, notably at the hands of Derbyshire, Hampshire, Nottinghamshire and Middlesex, have been by embarrassingly wide margins.

Although their record looks a little healthier than it did at the beginning of last month, the county's two remaining games, against Yorkshire and Northamptonshire, threaten a finish somewhere in the bottom three.

The reason for this decline and fall, only slightly ameliorated by a respectable placing in the AXA Equity and Law League, is obvious enough. Throughout a summer gloriously full of runs, half of it spent on a home wicket at Hove renowned as a batsman's paradise, Sussex have simply failed to function at the crease.

Only Alan Wells, whose consistent and defiant form in a losing side finally won him his long-delayed Test cap at The Oval last month, stood out as an exception to the grim rule. His average of 52 is a full 16 runs better than that of any other Sussex batsman.

Without Martin Speight, who topped the averages for Sussex last year but was laid low by a virus before the opening match and has been absent all season, only Bill Athey, Franklyn Stephenson and Keith Greenfield have accumulated any runs to speak of - and then not enough.

Therein lies the Sussex frustration. "If we had had some runs to bowl at, we would have been all right," the county secretary, Nigel Bett, said. It is a fact that, for basement dwellers in the Britannic Assurance County Championship, Sussex are far from devoid of bowling talent and have not had a bad season with the ball.

The highlight has been the emergence of the left-arm seam of Jason Lewry, with only three Championship matches behind him before this season but a regular player and a regular wicket-taker this time.

Ian Salisbury has recovered much of his old form, especially when he took a match-winning seven for 72 against Essex.

Ed Giddins has "never bowled better," Bett said, a verdict underlined both by the first 10- wicket haul of his career that drove Durham to defeat recently and by his elevated position in the Whyte & Mackay rankings.

Even the injury-prone Paul Jarvis, whose debut at 16 for Yorkshire and nine subsequent Tests now seem distant memories, has had his days, notably against Lancashire at Lytham. Not even the retirement of Eddie Hemmings in mid-season, at the tender age of 46 and with 30 years of county cricket within sight, has left the county with an attack that has foot-of-the- table engraved on it.

There are hopes for the future, too. A young and reasonably successful second team contains another bowling prospect of whom there are high hopes in the 20-year-old paceman James Kirtley.

There will be more immediate expectations next season, however, of Vasbert Drakes, the West Indian who takes over from the veteran Stephenson - now 36 and understandably not the day-to-day force he once was - as the county's overseas player. His hard-hitting batting could be as valuable as his seam bowling, given the weaknesses exposed this summer.

Sussex have another replacement to finalise. The vastly experienced Norman Gifford resigned as cricket manager in mid-season and the county is surveying its options for next season. The lucky man will take over a squad which is perhaps not quite as bad as it has sometimes appeared this season.

Spirits at Hove have also held up remarkably well. Most of the 2,000 or so new members attracted by a vigorous recruiting drive last year have stuck with the side through the course of this depressing season. There will be more gaps among the deckchairs and in the bank balance if Sussex do not show a noticeable improvement next time, however.

The belief at Hove is that the improvement will come without radical restructuring. Apart from those forced upon them, and the departure of two occasional first- teamers in John North and Carlos Remy, there will be few other comings and goings among the playing staff.

Sussex will just hope for much better performances from the same line- up, with the addition of Speight, Drakes and possibly Kirtley.

But, most of all, they will just hope for a few runs.