Salisbury makes 'emotional' return to Sussex as joint head coach

‘This is where I met my wife Emma. She was diagnosed with a brain tumour six years ago, and passed away in January’: Ian Salisbury makes emotional return to Sussex as joint head coach with club stalwart James Kirtley in bid to save the county

  • The experienced pair have just been made joint head coaches at Sussex 
  • Salisbury in charge of first-class and 50-over teams, while Kirtley has T20 side
  • The county want to build on the high profile global brand of their T20 side
  • Sussex have secured services again of Afghanistan leg-spinner Rashid Khan

Old friends, former Sussex team-mates and ex-England bowlers Ian Salisbury and James Kirtley have just been made joint head coaches of the county where it all began for them. 

Cricket Correspondent Paul Newman spoke to them during their first week back at the struggling club.

Paul Newman: You played together at Sussex and both had highly successful county careers as well as representing England. How did this new and unique arrangement come about?

James Kirtley: I’m thrilled about this. I’ve had a connection with Sussex for almost 30 years and in my second game ‘Sals’ captained the side in Alan Wells’ absence. So to be afforded this opportunity is great and very exciting.

Ian Salisbury (right) and James Kirtley have just been made joint head coaches at Sussex

Ian Salisbury: It’s full circle for me. My first involvement came in 1989 and it’s massively emotional to come back now. This is where I met my wife Emma and she passed away in January.

We’ve just had a meeting in the dining room here at Hove and that’s where I met her. Emma had a massive connection with the club and always wanted us to move back down in some capacity. She was a Sussex girl and her family still live in Worthing.

She was diagnosed with a brain tumour six years ago and so much has happened in my life since then. She would be immensely proud of this moment. Sometimes things happen for a reason, good and bad, and whether she’s had an influence on this we’ll never know. She might be able to tell me one day. But it is really special for me and I’m proud and humbled to be here. I’m ready to be a head coach.

Newman: You’ve had an incredibly tough time personally, Ian. Cricket can be a family. How has that community helped you come through it?

Salisbury has come full circle career-wise now by making an emotional return to Sussex

Salisbury: There were about 300 people at my wife’s funeral and so many of them were from the cricketing world. They supported us and that means the world to me. We made some good friends along the way.

I disappeared from that community when Emma was diagnosed. It was just after I was sacked as a coach at Surrey and it might have looked as though it was about that. It wasn’t. It was to look after my wife. And I disappeared again for six or seven months this year to be with my daughter.

You’re vulnerable in sport but also as human beings. I’m not on social media in any capacity, so they have to find a way to reach me, but there’s been so much warmth. I’m still grieving but I’ve found it therapeutic to talk about it. I’ve come full circle career-wise now and I’m back where it all started with my wife. That is very special.

Newman: You’ve had varied coaching careers since retiring from playing.

Salisbury: My learning began at Surrey. Then I learnt a hell of a lot coaching in a school before moving on to England women and the physical disability side. So my journey is a lot more rounded than that of a player who goes straight to being a head coach. It’s been like learning the more human element of coaching.

Salisbury coached in a school before moving on to England women and physical disability side

Kirtley: I finished playing here in 2010 and set up a clothing company, but I had to deal with an acquisition and was made redundant a year later. Around 2015 I found myself not doing a great deal. But, like Sals, I did a bit of coaching with England women, worked at a school and did a bit of consultancy.

In the last couple of years I found myself doing more and more back at Sussex and came back full-time just over a year ago. I’ve had plenty of challenges along the way and that gives you perspective. I played at Sussex in a successful era and I’m coming back with a fresh set of eyes and an understanding of the world outside cricket.

Newman: You’ve taken on this challenge jointly but you’re concentrating on the Twenty20 side, James, and you’re in charge of the first-class and 50-over teams, Ian.

Salisbury: We are the first county to do it this way. Others have had specialist Twenty20 coaches but we will both continue our existing roles. We are both involved across the board, so when James is heading up the T20 I’ll be his assistant, and when I’m doing the other two he’ll be my assistant.

It’s something we’ve done before. When I was head of the disability side I got James in because I knew he was a bloody good coach and then we set up a sort of Lions disability side and the roles were reversed. So we have previous and we’ll discuss everything thoroughly with one another.

Former England bowler James Kirtley has had a connection with Sussex for almost 30 years

Kirtley: We’ve had a lot of experiences together and it is comforting to know our philosophies align. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how we complement each other. That understanding of each provides a really stable foundation to what is ultimately a partnership going forward.

Newman: Have you always been pals?

Kirtley: I was a very wet-behind-the-ears teenager trying to make my mark when we met and Sals was the England player. Thankfully he did offer me support and advice, so I remember that vividly and we’ve stayed in contact, but I didn’t behave too well towards him when he disappeared off to Surrey!

Salisbury: He did fall out with me when I left Sussex. Genuinely. He didn’t speak to me and he didn’t speak to my wife when she came down to the club.

Kirtley (laughing): This is such an exaggeration!

Salisbury: It’s true! But that just indicates the passion he has for the club. A lot of the reason why we believe we can take the club back to having sustained success is that we won’t walk away. We’re both massively committed.

I didn’t want to leave in 1996 but opportunity came and success wasn’t going to come to Sussex at the time, so we went our different ways. But once James had won a couple of trophies he was happier and we rekindled our friendship. We don’t agree on everything but we know how to compromise and we can look at the bigger picture. More seriously, James has been very supportive of me over the last six years when I was having a tough time.

Kirtley will be in charge of T20 side, while Salisbury will take first-class and 50-over teams

Kirtley: We’re clear on where the boundaries are. We’ve had good discussions with Keith Greenfield (director of cricket) and Rob Andrew (chief executive) over how this is going to work and understanding where the divide should exist was very important.

Potentially we have a short time to make an impact, but I don’t think we’ll ever let the job get in the way of friendship. That might sound like a fairytale but we understand what we treasure. We’ll check in on those things and because there’s a deep understanding of each other we’ll be able to deal with any situation that unfolds.

Salisbury: There are traits I know we both have. Like empathy. Not just with one another but with life. We’ve also got no ego. We’ve gone well past that stage and we’re not judgmental people. We will have patience. And that helps.

Newman: You’ve got some top players at Sussex but the club’s first-class form, in particular, has been very poor. Where is the county at?

Kirtley: The ranking system the ECB used to split the counties into conferences for next year’s Championship is factual (Sussex were way down in the seedings). That doesn’t come without emotion. There are highly talented players in this squad and results haven’t reflected that. It’s our desire to show a way for these players and what they can achieve.

Sussex want to build on the high profile global brand of their successful T20 side

Salisbury: The figures are there in black and white. Numbers don’t lie. We have to accept that and move forward. We’re really clear where we want to take the club, but equally it could be way beyond us being around. All we can do is impart values and culture in an environment that supports that.

Newman: What are your aspirations?

Kirtley: We’ve got a pretty high profile global brand with our T20 side and we’ve secured the services again of Rashid Khan for next season. We want a regular home quarter-final and we need to get to finals day.

Salisbury: There are 18 counties trying to win trophies, so being in the running to win them is sustained success. For instance, Somerset are a successful county but the number of trophies they’ve won might not reflect that. If I said we’d win the Championship next season, that would need a thousand times improvement so I might get laughed out of town. But we need a measured improvement.

Newman: You had very successful county careers — Ian as a leg-spinner, which was rare then, and James as a seamer — and you played for England. But you both experienced tough times internationally. How do you reflect on what you achieved as players?

Sussex have secured the services of Afghanistan leg-spinner Rashid Khan for next season

Kirtley: I feel I fulfilled everything I could have done. You could break it down to winning trophies or representing England in all three formats but I do feel I got the best out of my ability.

Newman: But your bowling action was consistently questioned, James. It was originally cleared by ECB before problems came later. How much more could you have achieved without that?

Kirtley: I might have played more for England without those problems but I wouldn’t be the coach I am now. Being under that sort of scrutiny opened my eyes to pace bowling and coaching. There probably aren’t many tougher experiences to go through as a player but that has put me in good stead. I understand the biomechanics more.

Salisbury: That empathy comes through our experiences as players. Looking back I feel incredibly fortunate but it’s easy to remember the good times. Like James, if it had been plain sailing for me I wouldn’t be the coach I am today. We do know all about the highs and lows.

To play professionally for 20 years at three clubs, plying one of the most difficult arts, means you can’t have ego. It’s always about the memories you make and the people you meet along the way. The messages we’ve had since we were appointed shows goodwill and puts us in a good place. As long as we stick to our beliefs and values, we do believe we can make a difference.

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