For someone born in North Wales, who spent many of his formative years in Barbados, and who hails from a Manchester City-supporting family, you wouldn’t expect Phil Salt to follow the fortunes of the Albion.
Yet as an adoptive Brightonian, the Sussex batsman has been found at the Amex whenever his chosen vocation permits which, even before the coronavirus pandemic had broke out, had not been as much as he would have liked.
We spoke to Phil last November as he stopped off in Dubai, ahead of the T10 League that got underway in Abu Dhabi. Next stop for him would have been the Adelaide Strikers for the Big Bash, with the drafts taking place for the Pakistan Super League and Indian Premier League then approaching on the horizon. Sandwiched between were visits back home and a chance to catch up with all things Sussex – and the Albion.
“Cricket is all year round now,” said the 23-year-old batsman, whose impressive form earned him an England call last year. “The schedule can get tough at times but the biggest challenge is staying mentally fresh. That’s why it’s important to make the most of your down time which, for me, is to relax, switch off and recharge the batteries when I’m home.
“It’s important that I stay in the loop with everything that’s happening at Sussex during the off-season, which of course is my bread and butter, but living in Brighton and as someone who has a real passion for football, it was inevitable that I would be drawn towards the Amex once I’d joined the academy here. Whenever I get the opportunity, I’ll go with a couple of mates and we sit in the North Stand. I love it!”
Salt, who spent his formative years living in Denbigh, admits to being a frustrated footballer, having turned out in the academies at Rhyl Town and Chester City before his father’s job took him to Barbados as a ten-year-old. Like his dad, he also followed the blue half of Manchester, even if it was much to his chagrin back then.
“My dad’s a Mancunian so you are either blue or red,” he added. “I used to get a lot of stick at school given United were winning everything at the time and City had dropped as far as the old Second Division (League One), but I was just football mad and loved everything about the game. I still do. Although I play cricket for a living, and love what I do, football remains a real passion of mine.”
It wasn’t until his move to the Caribbean did he show a serious penchant for leather on willow. He would end up playing alongside a young Jofra Archer – now a team-mate of course – and later, having moved back to England, he excelled at Reed’s School in Surrey and caught the eye of Sussex.
“When you’re young, you dream of being a professional footballer but I was a frustrated midfielder who never had any pace,” he laughs. “But once I started playing cricket in Barbados – alongside so many good young players – I realised that I could do something with my cricket and I really enjoyed playing. Once I returned to England, things started to take off for me and when I was offered a place in the Sussex Academy, it was a no brainer.”
Salt headed south in 2014 and having come through the ranks, he really came to prominence during the 2018 County Championship Division Two campaign where he racked up 739 runs in 14 innings. His performances in the T20 game that year also earned his first England call as the Sharks reached the final of the Vitality Blast.
“It’s gone pretty well so far,” he says modestly of his career in Hove. “It’s all about performances and maintaining my consistency if I want to get to that next level, and while I love playing for all my teams, there’s always that extra desire to do well when I put the Sussex shirt on, especially when we’re at home and there’s a full house. Living in Brighton, I feel the passion – both for the cricket team and the football team. The fans really get behind their clubs.”
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Phil is certainly well placed to judge both, given his regular visits to the Amex in recent years. He first watched the Albion in a 3-0 win against Charlton in April 2014, at a time when Matthew Upson, Keith Andrews and Leo Ulloa were mainstays in the side.
“When I was in the Academy at Sussex I watched most of the home games,” he recalls. “That first season I went we had a really exciting team, with some really experienced players at that level. We were unfortunate to miss out through the play-offs but things really took off when Chris Hughton took over.
“We owe him a great deal for getting us to the Premier League, and keeping us there, but from the outside looking in, I’ve been really excited to watch the team under Graham Potter and it will be interesting to see how far the players can go under him and his staff.”
As has always been the case, there is a connection between Albion players and Sussex cricketers, with their paths sometimes crossing away from their chosen professions.
“I know Maty Ryan is good mates with Alex Carey, given their Aussie connections and who was at Sussex last year, but if I ever see the players out and about, we’ll always stop and chat – and they’re all good guys,” he adds. “Bruno, for instance, came to one of our games and I know he really got into his cricket.
“He managed to get us tickets for the Watford away game, which was really kind of him, and I also made sure I went to his final match as well. It was important to honour someone who has given so much to the club.”
That game just happened to be against Manchester City, on the final day of last season, so was it a result that pulled at the heartstrings?
“Glenn Murray is probably my favourite Brighton player, given what he’s given the club over the years, but there were hearts in City mouths when he opened the scoring in that game!” Phil laughs. “Obviously I was delighted that Man City beat Liverpool to the title but it was also nice that Brighton could go into the game knowing their Premier League status was already assured. It was a win-win all round for me that day!”
To find out more about the new season, visit www.sussexcricket.co.uk