Ahead of the start of the 2024 County Championship, Ali Orr speaks to Katya Witney on moving from Sussex to Hampshire, and lessons learned from a tricky 2023 season.

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For Ali Orr, the shoots of green bursting through the ground to signal the arrival of spring mark the start of a new chapter that goes beyond the onset of a new season. Having left his childhood county at Hove and moved down the south coast to the freshly named Utilita Bowl, this winter was all about building new foundations.

“I’m quite nervous when it comes to meeting new people,” Orr tells Wisden.com. “When I know people it’s fine, I’d say I’m quite confident. But when it comes to actually meeting new people and starting again, it’s quite daunting. I find it quite nerve-wracking but everyone there has been so welcoming. I grew up with a lot of people at Sussex, not just in terms of playing club cricket but I went to school with a lot of them. So those relationships were formed over a long, long time.

“But it’s like any job. You move jobs and you’ve got to start again. Hopefully, I can develop similar kinds of relationships here.”

There’s a coming of age element in Orr’s move to Hampshire. Having made his first-class debut for Sussex in 2021, he made his mark the following summer. Three hundreds came in the County Championship across the 2022 season, as well as a 99 against Middlesex. The final century in the last round of the season was a mammoth 198 in a 328-run stand with Tom Haines. That innings only came to an end when Ajaz Patel managed to deflect a drive from Haines onto Orr’s stumps at the non-striker’s end.

Although a seemingly unfortunate dismissal, it sparked a change in fortunes for Orr that bled into the following season.

In the first innings in Sussex’s opening match of the 2023 County Championship campaign against Durham at Hove, Orr was 19 not out when another drive off Haines’ bat was deflected onto his stumps, this time off Ben Raine’s hand. He was, once again, out of his ground.

Two weeks later, in his fourth innings of the season, Orr found himself lying face down on the ground staring at the dismantled non-striker stumps again. Another punch from Haines, another deflection. Three times in four matches.

After Yorkshire were unable to force a result on the final day of the match, Grant Flower – former Zimbabwe international and Sussex batting coach – squashed any lamentation of Orr’s bad luck.

“It was sloppy backing up,” Flower said. “He should be able to get back in his crease. There’s no excuse. And if it’s the third time, it’s just stupid… It’s professional cricket, there’s no excuse for it. The guy’s a good player and he’s still young, but this is costing him, and it’s costing us as a team.”

Despite his bluntness, it was Flower’s direct approach that led to a more head-on solution to the problem.

“I spoke to Grant at the time. He is one of the most honest people I know,” says Orr. “He said to me how I was being lazy and that it wasn’t good enough. He said it in the press as well but he obviously said it to me first and I completely understood. I think then I was like ‘alright, maybe I need to work on that in the nets’.

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“Now, in a way, it’s actually quite funny. I felt pretty stupid getting out like that when I should’ve scored more runs. But it wasn’t a great look when a batting coach is wanting you to run hard and I was just stood on my bat.”

That fragmented start to the first class season set the tone for a frustrating year. Across eight Championship innings, Orr scored 322 runs with a high score of 67. A knee injury he picked up in the second match of the Sharks’ T20 Blast campaign delayed his white-ball summer before a dislocated finger suffered while playing club cricket curtailed it entirely. His change in fortunes mirrored Sussex’s limited-overs campaigns.

Having finished top of Group A in the One Day Cup in 2022, Orr’s 522 runs including a record-breaking double hundred a key part of their campaign, they finished bottom of the table in 2023.

“It was hugely frustrating,” says Orr. “I’d say, especially last season, I set myself some pretty big ambitions and goals for the summer. Obviously, it didn’t start as well as I wanted in the Championship, which is a bit disappointing. But I definitely felt like I had a bit of momentum in the first couple of T20 games so it was frustrating to get injured.

“But I think more than anything, in a way it’s been a blessing in disguise because it’s really put things into perspective for me and made me realise how lucky I am to be here playing cricket. The months I was on the physio bed, and in the gym doing these awful physio exercises, it actually made me realise how much I enjoy it. It’s definitely made me more motivated to try harder and get better and also to be a lot stronger.”

Part of that motivation comes from the chance to step up to Division One cricket this year, as well as a potential shot at silverware. Hampshire have finished in the top three of the County Championship for three years running, were runners-up in the 2023 One-Day Cup and won the 2022 T20 Blast. With a complex situation at Sussex and Orr’s departure seen as more evidence of a worsening situation at the club, the opportunity establishing himself at Hampshire provides is indisputable.

“Everyone I’ve spoken to at the club has talked about that winning mentality,” says Orr. “It’s not just about Division One, it’s about the Blast, the One-Day Cup, everything. The thing they talk about most from last year is that they won 80 per cent of games they played across all formats. That’s a pretty ridiculous stat if you ask me. There’s a difference between wanting to win and competing, and expecting to win. And every person here just expects to turn up and win, which is a really nice place to be.”

Coming in from another county, with a track record of big runs and tipped as one to watch for the future brings pressure with it. As much as the Hampshire set-up boasts a plethora of senior batters and a fearsome bowling attack, there’s an opportunity for Orr to establish a place at the top of the order.

“I think opening the batting for me has always been what I’ve done from a very young age, so I’ve always looked at going out there batting, just trying to enjoy myself,” says Orr. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people about the pressure coming here. I appreciate people are expecting me to do well but I think more about the pressure I put on myself because I expect myself to do really well. I’ve got very high standards for myself.

“So for me, it’s just still about trying to keep that enjoyment and going out and just batting, not trying to play how people want me to play. Keeping it as simple as possible, playing the situation and finding that balance between defending and attacking.”

Orr’s natural style has previously found that balance well. While his cross-format strike rates make for standard reading, they’re interlaced with eye-catching attacking innings. In 2022, he became the first Sussex player to hit a List A double-century, scoring 206 off 161 balls. His third and fourth fifties in that innings came off 24 and 29 balls respectively. There were ten sixes in the 198 he scored in the final innings of the 2022 County Championship, with his innings strike rate at over 100.

“I’d say naturally I like to play shots,” says Orr. “I’m quite attacking. But then, at the same time, coming to the Utilita Bowl on a pitch that does a bit more, it’s trying to play the pitch and play the game. I’ve obviously watched a lot of Ben Duckett and Zak Crawley, especially in the Ashes, but I think if I give myself time then hopefully those kinds of shots will come.

“I’m really trying to focus on understanding how the pitch will play because Hove is very different to Hampshire. You’ve got the slope at Hove and Hampshire is a bit flatter but the surface will move a bit more, so that’s a new challenge for me and something that I’m definitely keen to try and figure out and try to work out the best ways of combating as a player. I’ve watched a lot of the senior players at Hampshire like [James] Vince and [Nick] Gubbins because they bat incredibly well to what the situation demands of them. They’ve got ridiculously good techniques and can happily bat for a day without really looking like they’re going to get out.

“My first goal is to try and start well wherever that may be, and try and cement my place in the team and feel comfortable and confident. I think that comes from my process going into a game and how I practice. I just want to try and be the best version of myself really.”