A Trio of Champions

Mustaq Ahmed, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and Yasir Arafat

The photo above was taken on 21 Sept 2006, the second day of three in the Championship match against Nottinghamshire

Three jubilant men from Punjab

The three men from Punjab standing on the Trent Bridge outfield have the broad smiles of a group that know they are about to achieve a truly remarkable feat. On the left stands Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, a twenty-eight-year-old swing bowler whose contributions to Sussex’s season, even marred by injury and international responsibilities, totalled 35 wickets at 16.71 and three five-wicket hauls. On the right is twenty-four-year-old Yasir Arafat, a hitherto unknown fast bowler whose 41 wickets at 24.85 more than justified his selection. In the centre is the man who shaped Sussex’s golden years of the 2000s more than any other, thirty-six-year-old Mushtaq Ahmed, whose 102-wicket season was completed in career-best fashion against Nottinghamshire in this match, claiming nine wickets for 48 runs in the second innings.

The following day Sussex would claim their second County Championship title a mere three years after the first – a blink of an eye, compared to the 113-year wait the club had endured for that 2003 triumph. While the three men had no way of knowing it, it would also be their last day together as Sussex cricketers – Arafat had only that day signed for Kent for the following season, while Mushtaq would retire in 2008, the same year that Rana would move to Yorkshire. Although the younger men would eventually return to Sussex for last hurrahs, never again would they all don the martlets and bask in shared glory. While a poignant footnote for this image, it also helps to underscore how special this brief era in the history of the club was.



Trent Bridge 20th -22nd September 2006

Trent Bridge

Sussex entered Nottinghamshire with a firm but not airtight grip on the championship trophy – from a season begun with six wins in eight games, a combination of injuries (including Rana), weather, and international call-ups had weakened the side, leaving them eight points ahead of Lancashire in the final round of matches. With a dour forecast for the latter stages of the game, Sussex drew on its full contingent of players – Rana returned to the side, leaving Arafat benched, while England’s wishes for Mike Yardy to be rested ahead of further international fixtures were ignored. The inclusion of Yardy was vindicated on the first day as he made 119, top-scoring on a high-scoring day. Other than Carl Hopkinson’s duck, every Sussex batter scored over fifty – Murray Goodwin contributed 99 to close a seasonal account of 1,642@63.42, while Matt Prior’s ebullient near run-a-ball 77* combined with Robin Martin-Jenkins’ 82* to leave Sussex on 560 for six declared by lunch on Day 2. This batting performance set the stage neatly for a strong showing from the bowling unit led by Mushtaq, whose 89 wickets for the season was impressive, but slightly short of the 100+ he had achieved in prior seasons with the club – the stage was set for him to close his and Sussex’s season out with style

It was a race against the weather and the threat of Lancashire breathing down their necks at the Rose Bowl that galvanised the Sussex attack into rapid action. While initially Nottinghamshire appeared set to build a solid response, reaching 143-3 in relatively short order, a spectacular collapse saw four wickets go down for a single run off the bowling of Martin-Jenkins and Mushtaq, the latter guiding the ball off the bat and into the hands of Chris Adams at slip in familiar fashion. With Mushtaq’s four for 60 putting the screws to the Nottinghamshire batters and Rana, Martin-Jenkins, Jason Lewry and James Kirtley picking up valuable wickets in support, Nottinhamshire found themselves all out for 165 in 54 overs and following on in the same day they’d begun their response – none of their batters reached fifty, with Samit Patel top-scoring at 35.


The second innings saw Mushtaq, now well-warmed up for the task, deliver a spell of devastating leg-spin that ranks among the very best in the history of the game. With the threat of rain and ten wickets between Sussex and a second season of glory, the Sahiwalian spinner took six wickets in as many overs, including experienced batters like the Australian David Hussey and county stalwart Samit Patel, both playing shots below their calibre. In just his twelfth over of the innings, going at roughly four runs each, Mushtaq claimed his third LBW, trapping Andrew Harris in front of the stumps to close his account, and secure the trophy for Sussex. While James Kirtley might have felt guilty about denying the great man his 10fer by taking a wicket of his own, Mushtaq was happy to share the spotlight with the team, pointing to the family dynamic and group effort as key to another successful season. 

James Kirtley

With around four hundred Sussex fans on hand to sing ‘Sussex By The Sea’, the three Pakistani bowlers could take stock on the outfield, with each man having played a vital role in a season that, while not as historic as 2003, might’ve been the best season of county cricket played by the club in its history.


Mushtaq Ahmed – The club’s greatest?

Adoration for Mushtaq Ahmed is never less than fulsome at the County Ground – during the COVID lockdowns, the County Championship Twitter account ran polls throughout the lost 2020 season, asking fans of each club to vote for their greatest player ever: when it came to Sussex, Mushtaq won at a convincing canter. With a portrait in the pavilion and effusive praise from fans and staff alike, Mushy is a figure of deep affection at Hove, and with good reason – his career renaissance at Sussex mirrored the meteoric growth of the club during the early 2000s, and neither could have achieved their success without the other.

It is hard to imagine that the leg spinner from Sahiwal was ever less than great, but Sussex’s contract came to him at a time when his career appeared all but over. From the heights of the 1992 World Cup victory, with Imran Khan praising his googly to dismiss Graeme Hick in that final as “one of the great moments in Pakistan Cricket”, to being crowned one of the 1997 Wisden Cricketers of the Year, Mushtaq’s prime years were marked by high achievements and world-class performances. Declared a member of a trio of great spinners alongside Shane Warne and Anil Kumble, Mushtaq brought a weighty arsenal of spin to any bowling attack he was part of, and was capable of consistency that rivalled any great spin bowler. His 95 wickets in 1995 for Somerset, a Lord’s honours board entry in 1996, and several excellent tours of service for club and county cemented his reputation. His rapid slide in the intervening years and into the 2000s might have appeared a terminal decline: a great Test player playing club cricket is a story that tends to lead in a single direction. Thankfully, when Sussex were priced out of obtaining Harbhajan Singh and Stuart McGill in 2003, they took a chance that Mushtaq would come good, and were rewarded beyond their wildest dreams.

Goodwin, Adams and Mushtaq, 2003

Mushtaq’s numbers speak for themselves: 478 wickets for the club in County Championship matches over just five seasons, at an average of 25.34, and two 100+ wicket seasons to his name. His capacity to take wickets for Sussex was seemingly limitless, and while no-one would dispute that Shane Warne is the greatest leg-spin bowler of the modern era, Mushtaq is the undeniable master of the art when it comes to the County Championship. His service in 2006 was nothing less than exemplary – not only did he take 102@19.91, an average only surpassed by his Pakistani teammate Naved-ul-Hasan, but his 623.5 overs were by far the most bowled by a single player for the club in that season. Despite increasingly feeling the affect of age and toil, Mushtaq worked his role without complaint, unleashing his devastating googlies, variable flights and paces, and methodical leg-breaks until the goods were delivered.

Mushtaq was the quintessential spinner, filling a gap Sussex had long sought to fill, and achieved his successes with gusto. It’s possible that Sussex fans love Mushtaq as much as they do not just for his contributions, but for what he represented – an elder statesman in a young man’s game, judged past his prime and even over the hill by some, showing the world that old tricks could still work their magic in the right hands. In some ways, Mushy was a figurehead for the club itself: at its lowest point, with no-one seriously expecting it to rise from the ashes, the Golden Era of Sussex Cricket was built on the backs of hard work, undersung heroes, and veterans of the game – Mushtaq ticked every category.


Rana Navad-ul-Hasan

Rana’s appearance in the photo was no guaranteed event – a phenomenal fast bowler with as many variations of pace as Mushtaq had of spin, he suffered from the same wear-and-tear woes that have plagued bowlers of his type for centuries, from the 1900s through to the likes of Jofra Archer. A groin injury in 2006 meant he only played six games in the season, as well as suffering through the Pakistan tour of England that summer – Pakistan’s coaching team accused Sussex of overbowling him, which coach Mark Robinson refuted. Rana’s bowling figures at the very least reflect careful management, with only 165.2 overs of bowling across the summer, with which he achieved 35 wickets@16.71, the best average of any Sussex player in that season. His contributions were crucial throughout the campaign, and his 11-148 against Yorkshire were the best figures for a Sussex bowler against the White Roses since 1907. 

Rana Navad-ul-Hasan during a show match in Doha

Rana’s career at Sussex could be traced back to his countryman, as Mushtaq had recommended him to Peter Moores in 2005 after watching him put in dogged performances for Pakistan against Australia. In an era when having three overseas players in a playing XI was permitted, Rana was an ideal addition to the 2003-winning international line-up of Mushtaq and Murray Goodwin, providing pace and swing variety that was well-suited to the conditions of the County Ground, and the long contests of bat and ball that typified the county game. His popularity at Hove never wavered, with fans of the club only regretting that injury had prevented them seeing a full season of Rana in action.

Rana was not blessed with a straightforward career – his peak years coincided with some of Pakistan’s fastest and most aggressive pacers, with his brand of fast-medium seam bowling less appealing to selectors than the express deliveries of Shoaib Akhtar or Mohammad Sami (who also played for Sussex in 2008). His experiences in the UK after leaving Sussex were marred by personal experiences with racism at Yorkshire in 2009, leading Rana to offer testimony in the hearings surrounding Azeem Rafiq’s accusations against the club in 2020. Those hearings did lead Rana to reflect positively on his experiences at Sussex, noting much as Mushtaq has done that the club had “treated [him] like their own family”, and that he had greatly enjoyed his time at Hove. He returned to Sussex in 2010, staying through to 2011 and contributing handily with bat and ball. By this time he had emerged as a seasoned T20 journeyman player, making Big Bash appearances and out of the national spotlight, and Sussex was not quite the same club it had been in the halcyon days of Adams and Mushtaq, but Rana brought his old magic back to the club for a few seasons more. His contributions to the 2000s golden age of Sussex cricket are the cornerstone of his legacy at the club, and his love for the culture was reciprocated by players, staff, and fans alike.

Yasir Arafat

A 24-year old near-unknown from Rawalpindi seemed an inauspicious replacement for the injured Rana in mid-June 2006, but Sussex staff knew better than to question Mushtaq’s eye for talent, and so Yasir Arafat was signed for the remainder of the season. By the end of the season, with 41 wickets@24.85 in the county game, strong performances in the 50-over and T20 competitions, and a remarkable batting average of 43.33 (the club’s fifth highest for the season), it was clear that Mushtaq had been more than vindicated.


Yasir Arafat

While Mushtaq and Rana were playing county at a time in their career when it could be said that their international futures were under a cloud, Arafat was hungry to develop his portfolio into a national-quality player. Working in the Scottish leagues for a few years had drawn the attention of Mushtaq and a few others, but he was an essentially unknown element before being signed by Sussex in 2006 – his appearances in U19 and top-flight international cricket as a teenager had been sporadic, and not led to long-lasting selection or a vaunted Test squad spot. His work in the Pakistan academy with Mushtaq prior to the season had further put him on the great man’s radar, and when a slot in the squad came up, Mushtaq wasted no time in making the recommendation. Arafat’s ability to construct an innings with the bat and reverse-swing the old ball made him a perfect fit for the Sussex side. His performances earned him the attention of several clubs around the country, and with the limits on overseas players meaning that once Rana was fit his days at Sussex were sadly numbered, he accepted a contract with Kent for the 2007 season – Sussex nonetheless invited him to the final game at Trent Bridge, where the Punjabi trio were able to celebrate their collective hard work together. His return to Hove in 2007 would be as an opponent and – as is so often the way – he marked the occasion by claiming a 5fer, and scoring his maiden Championship century.

Arafat was able to translate his county success into a recall to the international side, including a well-earned Test debut, on which he also secured a 5fer. Sadly, much like Rana, the competitiveness of the Pakistani fast-bowling selections left his international career stagnant before his time, leading him to transition into a limited-overs journeyman: he became a staple of the early years of the Australian Big Bash T20 league, returned to Sussex among other clubs for various seasonal appearances throughout the 2010s. His contributions to Sussex in limited-overs continued during this period, as in 2009 he was a lynchpin of Sussex achieving the ‘double’ of the 40-over and T20 competitions in that year: 24 wickets@25.83 in 50-over games and 15 wickets@14.00 in 20-over games were essential to both campaigns. By then more of a seasoned veteran than an up-and-comer, Arafat was well-loved by Sussex fans during these seasons: the chant of “that’s good, Mr. Arafat” (to the tune of Go West by the Village People) reverberated around Hove as he made his contributions with bat and ball.


The Three Musketeers

The photo of Mushtaq, Rana, and Arafat on the Trent Bridge outfield captures a moment in time: the midpoint of Mushtaq’s career swansong which had begun in 2003, the start of Arafat’s rise to national prominence and global success, and the cusp of Rana’s transition into a veteran journeyman in demand across the world. Uniting all three men in this moment is not just where they came from and what they had achieved, but the love they had for the club and county which they were representing: the family dynamic and welcoming atmosphere of Hove had helped refire old masters and galvanise young stars, and in return they had helped deliver a historic season. From teaching Mushtaq how to play keepy-uppies to discussions of faith and culture in the changing rooms, Sussex in this era was entrenched in a community atmosphere that was inclusive and all-welcoming. It is this kind of family spirit that helps the club retain its unique atmosphere to this day, and has made it a home for South Asian players from the days of Ranji to the captaincy of Pujara. In that 2006 photo is encapsulated a lot of what makes Sussex as a club so special; a spirit worth celebrating for years to come.

Further reading

Wisdens 1997, 2004, and 2007

Flight of the Martlets: The Golden Age of Sussex Cricket by Bruce Talbot and Paul Weaver

Twenty20 Vision by Mushtaq Ahmed