Ashes omens everywhere you look as Steve Smith helps Sussex steal a march

Sussex 221 for 4 (Smith 68*, Haines 58, Coles 50*) lead Glamorgan 123 (Robinson 4-29) by 98 runs

How many pre-Ashes blows is it possible to land in one County Championship match? That is not merely a rhetorical question, given the number of international head-to-heads as Sussex took on Glamorgan at Hove. Ollie Robinson unequivocally landed the first of them, trapping Marnus Labuschagne lbw third ball as part a four-wicket haul, and the day ended with Steven Smith (for now Robinson’s team-mate) recording the first half-century of his three-game stint with Sussex.

Does that somehow make it England 1-1 Australia? If only it were that simple… Michael Neser, the in-form allrounder who is pushing for a place in Australia’s Ashes party, also fell cheaply to Robinson, but then claimed two wickets and a catch to prevent Sussex from completely running away with the contest. One of his victims was Cheteshwar Pujara, who made the first duck of his Sussex career. Pujara is Smith’s captain here but will line up against Australia for India in next month’s World Test Championship final. Are you still following?

Neser also bent his back trying to dislodge Smith for the Glamorgan cause. His first ball was left, his second blocked and third thrashed dismissively through cover for the first of Smith’s nine boundaries. As the day drew to a close, Labuschagne’s work-in-progress offbreaks were called upon in final attempt to ruffle Smith. Virtually everywhere you looked there was a potential Test match stramash.

Accordingly, the air of excitement was palpable as 1500 fans took their places for the start of this match at the 1st Central County Ground – and not just because these two teams lie second and fourth in Division Two as we approach the midpoint of the season (yes, it’s true). The weather appears to have turned, The Sussex Cricketer has reopened – or at least been reincarnated beneath the development of flats on Eaton Road – and there are few finer places in the world to be than Hove on a sunny day.

Temporary stands were in place, though not necessarily because of the weight of demand for tickets to see Smith bat in his only home appearance for Sussex. The T20 Blast starts in just over a week, by which time Sussex will hope to have made good on their first-day dominance over Glamorgan and risen to the top of the table – albeit having played a game more than fellow promotion-chasers Durham.

A poll on Sussex’s YouTube page suggested that most of those watching remotely, at least, were there for Smith, and they would have ended the day satisfied as the Australian produced an innings full of trademark leaves, trademark fidgets and trademark run-gathering. It was probably as fluent as Smith gets, full of the usual ticks and foibles, but probably not evidence in isolation that Sussex have significantly damaged England’s chances of regaining the urn.

For encouragement on that front, English fans will look to Robinson’s 4 for 29, which followed a career-best 14-wicket haul at Worcester a couple of weeks ago. Robinson has confidently talked up England’s Ashes chances this summer – “I really feel like we could get one over on them, and give them a good hiding,” he said in March – and he delivered on the mind games in this advance skirmish. Labuschagne saw off two deliveries from Ari Karvelas, the first via a Smith-esque lightsabre leave, before facing up to Robinson, who rapped him peremptorily on the pads to send Australia’s Test No. 3 back to the Glamorgan dressing-room.

Labuschagne lingered momentarily, perhaps replaying the delivery in his head, but it looked a straightforward call for umpire Rob White – the ball nibbling back and maybe staying a little low, going down the slope from the Cromwell Road End, as Robinson tore off in a manner that England fans will hope is to be replicated at Edgbaston in just over four weeks’ time.

Trailing slightly towards the back of the celebratory huddle was Smith, who admitted on arrival that Robinson had knocked him over third ball in the nets and was perhaps just starting to cast his mind forward to the first Test – or at least to meeting up with Labuschagne for Australia’s training camp ahead of the WTC final at The Oval.

The wicket of Labuschagne was Robinson’s sole success from his opening spell, but it struck at the heart of the Glamorgan batting. Karvelas had produced the first breakthrough, finding some extra bounce to clip the shoulder of Ed Byrom’s bat – Oli Carter holding on this time having dropped Byrom in Karvelas’ opening over – and Fynn Hudson-Prentice claimed a wicket with his third ball as Sam Northeast jabbed a thick outside edge to third slip.

Robinson returned with Glamorgan five down and took only three balls to make it six, Kiran Carlson misjudging another nip-backer that travelled unimpeded into middle and off stumps. Neser fell in Robinson’s next over, pinned on front trying to work across the line, and the England man had a fourth shortly after when Timm van der Gugten was squared up and edged into the cordon.

That dismissal meant Glamorgan, having been inserted on what looked a decent day for batting, had stumbled to 79 for 8 inside the morning session, Tom Haines chipping out the other two with his mediums. Zain-ul-Hassan, on first-class debut having been recruited by Glamorgan via the South Asian Cricket Academy, played tidily for 22 only to nick off playing forward – Carter grabbing the chance at second attempt – and Billy Root then left one that shaded back enough to clip off and dislodge the bails.

Karvelas wrapped up the innings after lunch, Smith taking both catches, and Sussex then began their reply in a hurry as the opening pair put on 76 at more than a run a ball. Neser was twice cracked dismissively back down the ground by Ali Orr (more Ashes points-scoring?), who reached his highest score of the season before becoming the third batter on the day to be bowling leaving. Neser then pinned Tom Alsop and Pujara in front in successive overs, but Haines moved steadily to fifty in the company of Smith, a feat matched later by James Coles in the final over of the day.

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick

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