Garton relishing start of Sussex campaign after 'weird' winter
In a break from bowling in the newly installed net-marquee at Hove, all-rounder George Garton has been talking about Sussex CCC’s hopes for the County Championship, which begins on Thursday with a trip to Old Trafford.
There is something going on at Hove. A youthful revolution aiming to bring Sussex's recent red-ball misery to an end.
“You’ll never win anything with kids,” remarked Alan Hansen, infamously. Well, Sussex have other ideas.
The side have impressed in their two pre-season friendlies against Hampshire and Surrey, scoring runs and taking wickets against two strong sides.
Now, with Thursday's Championship opener against Lancashire just a day away, there is hope once again down in Hove that a new generation of talent can take centre stage.
Last year, talented spinner Jack Carson finished top of the club's wicket charts and has continued to bowl well in this year's friendlies. And 22-year-old Tom Haines, who hit Sussex's only red-ball century of 2020, kicked off 2021 with a pragmatic hundred at The Oval - while Ollie Robinson's performances have seen the skilful seamer rightly in and around the England Test squad for winter tours of Sri Lanka and India.
Then, there's Garton, who, in Robinson's absence last year, led the attack with pure pace and an impressive confidence, taking home both Sussex's Young Player and Player of the Season awards for run of stellar performances across all formats with bat and ball.
Garton's 2020 saw a maiden five wicket-haul for the 23-year-old against eventual champions Essex - including the wicket of Alastair Cook twice; two match-winning knocks to get the Sharks out of the Southern Group, and a powerful 23 off one Steve Finn over that was perhaps the icing on the cake of an incredible year.
Twelve months later, and it is all about finding consistency. Garton focused on ensuring, after a poor red-ball run, that Sussex compete in the County Championship.
"It was nice after being injured for a couple of years to show what I could do again,'' explains Garton, who was called up as cover to England 2017-18 Ashes squad after making just eight first-class appearances. "[Realising] I can still do it...and put match-winning performances in for Sussex. It gives you confidence for this year. I just have to focus on producing the best I can and making the most of my ability.
Despite the individual accolades, Garton is the first to admit that Sussex as a team struggled across the red-ball format last year as the youthful set-up was exposed by a strong South Group.
“You can’t really sugar-coat last year - we were right at the bottom," he adds, honestly. “As a squad we sat down and we assessed where we wanted to improve..both skill and off the pitch.
“It's about having the right attitude and applying yourself every time you go out and being proud to represent Sussex in every game you play. Respect the fact that you're very privileged to put on the badge for Sussex and go and enjoy and express yourself. With that sort of attitude anything is achievable."
That passion for the club has become a feature of Sussex's pre-season. After the departure of Jason Gillespie, James Kirtley and Ian Salisbury have been promoted from within to be joint head coaches. Sailsbury is focused on first-class and 50-over competition, leaving Kirtley to oversee an exciting T20 set-up.
"They compliment each other really well. It's great that you have someone like James around as almost a bowling coach [for the first-class matches] to give very clear, honest and factual feedback.
"Ian has been brilliant. I was really excited when he was announced as the head-coach for the first-class and 50-over competitions. He is so passionate about Sussex and I really like his style of coaching the way he communicates very well... how he feels and how he wants to take the club forward.”
The environment created by Covid, with lockdown keeping team sessions to a minimum, has meant a far from ideal winter season for those in Sussex. For Garton, however, his performances were rewarded with a spell away from Hove and spent the first weeks of 2021 soaking up the sunshine in Dubai.
“It's been a weird winter," says Garton, who spent most of January involved in the Abu Dhabi T10 - competing against Sussex teammates Chris Jordan, Phil Salt and Luke Wright. "I was lucky enough to get some sunshine...and start bowling on grass. The more you bowl the more your body gets used to it.
"It has transitioned nicely with the marquee here [at Hove]. It’s meant I could tick over and keep the overs up. It's been a bit of a luxury [the marquee] for four weeks that the lads have put some good yards in their legs and they all look fit and strong for the season ahead.
Over the winter, 19-year-old Sean Hunt has joined from the Surrey Academy, while Jack Carson and Jamie Atkins have also impressed in the warm-ups, after making their debuts in last years Bob Willis Trophy. Add teenager Jamie Atkins, who will likely make his debut this summer and clocked 88mph in an under-18 match last year, and Sussex have the makings of a formidable red-ball bowling battery.
Then, there’s the experienced heads. Stuart Meaker will be hoping to find form after a difficult first season at Hove. Robinson's Championship record speaks for itself. And, of course, there's Garton, who, at only 23, has plenty of admirers across the globe, and found himself leading the attack last year in Robinson and Meaker's absence.
“We’re really excited to see what we can do," states Garton. “It did make me laugh because in our first warm-up game because Ollie, Stuart and Mitch [Claydon] weren’t playing so I was the senior bowler at 23 years old. So yes, it is a young team, but a talented one.
"We cover most bases with our attack. It gives us a good platform because batsmen can't get settled. We’ve also got some really good spinners coming through. Jack Carson did well last year and is looking even better in the nets."
For skipper Ben Brown, the options are there to compete in a challenging Group 3 that sees Kent, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northamptonshire, Glamorgan battling with Sussex to reach Division One.
With the ball Sussex look good, but with the bat questions will be asked of a line-up that hit one red-ball century in 2020. Australian international Travis Head - as overseas - will be a welcome addition to the squad when he is available after the first two rounds of matches.
"Travis [Head] adds another really good batter in the middle-order," states Garton. "He’s a versatile player. He can bat almost wherever he wants and can impact the game from there. We're all excited to have him.
"We’ve got the squad to win, but everyone wants to win. If you asked any county, that’s their goal at the start of the season. I just have to focus on producing the best I can and making the most of my ability.”
Sure enough, if Sussex are to improve this year with the red-ball and prove their many doubters wrong, you expect Garton to be involved one way or another.
Sussex begin their County Championship campaign on Thursday, April 8 against Lancashire at Old Trafford