Leicestershire v Kent, County Championship, Grace Road, 24-27 April 2016
I never realised, until I retired, quite how many shades of Cuprinol there are. Seasoned Oak and Deep Russet, of course, but then there’s Seagrass, Forget-me-not, Gated Forest, Mellow Moss, Mediterranean Glaze and many, many more. It’s a whole new world to me, and I often find myself browsing the shelves in Homebase as avidly I once flicked through the racks of LPs in record shops. I have, you see, decided to take up gardening.
It’s not that I’ve done nothing to the garden before, of course, but that was merely in the way of keeping what was already there under control – mowing the lawn, pruning the roses, weeding the flowerbeds – and it was something of a chore, to be fitted in around work and more enjoyable leisure time pursuits. Now I have the time and a little money to be more creative, to have a “vision” of how I would like the garden to be and to attempt to put it into practice.
I say “the garden” but I am starting with a more manageable “space”, to wit the patio (the back garden will have to remain a “forgotten wilderness of boredom” for the time being). I have cleared the ivy that was clogging one fence, cut down a holly bush that had grown up under another and was threatening to demolish it, and removed last year’s (still living) Christmas tree. I have introduced sackloads of decorative white stone chippings and planters in every shape and material, to be filled with bulbs and seeds that will, in time, I hope, result in a sweetly fragrant riot of colour. And I have of course, applied Cuprinol to the fences (Woodland Green only at the moment, though I am toying with the idea of adding some White Daisy or Arabian Sand to create an effect of Andalusian stripes).
The problem with all this is that unless you share my “vision” (i.e. have some idea of how it’s meant to look when it’s finished) it all looks rather bare and, frankly, a bit of a mess at present. Another is that what I am working towards is somewhere that will be a delight to sit in when the Summer comes, but only if we happen to have a heatwave and need to take refuge from the heat.
The root of the problem here is that word “patio“. Originally a patio was an uncovered but shaded courtyard garden in the South of Spain, perfected by the Moorish rulers of Al-Andalus. It would, typically, feature exquisite geometric tiling, delicately perfumed flowers and topiary, ingenious running water features and served both to remind believers of the pleasures of the heavenly gardens to come and provide refuge from the fierce Andalusian sun.
Needless to say, most English patios are not like this at all, but the word is a reminder of the reluctance of the English to embrace our – at best – temperate climate, a land of holly and ivy and mistletoe, and our urge to hanker always after something warmer, something more delicate, something more exotic, even if it means employing that contradiction in terms, a patio heater.
I mention all this because, after spending a few days at Grace Road this week, it appears to me that Leicestershire’s new go-ahead Chief Executive Wasim Khan has been spending a lot of time in Homebase as well recently, and, like me, has a vision for the ground that will be lovely when it’s finished, and when Summer comes.
He began last season by painting the roof of the dear old Meet, which still seemed to be stained with soot from its days at Aylestone Road, a delicate shade of Cambridge Blue (or Seagrass, as the Cuprinol colour chart describes it); you can just about make it out in the background here, beneath some skies that might have interested Turner (J.M.W., not Ken)
The venerable George Geary Stand has been given a coat of Mediterranean Glaze, and white canopies or parasols put up over two of the exposed stands (smaller than those over the Mound Stand at Lord’s, but larger than the ones you can buy in Homebase, for your patio)
The white pavilions seem to hover and billow like an encampment of the Great Khan himself. Imagine retreating beneath their shade on a hot afternoon, in a geographically eclectic Orientalist fantasy, to sip Pimms to the accompaniment of a drowsy afternoon raga! Or, if you prefer, retreating from the rain on a wet Friday evening to sink five pints of Red Fox Bitter to the accompaniment of Stench’s airhorn!
As you can also see (somewhere through the murk), we now have floodlights installed, which loom over the ground, but do not currently illuminate it (thanks to some obscure administrative mix-up we cannot use them for Championship matches) and the Maurice Burrows Stand has been spruced up (though not yet opened to the public).
This, though, is only the beginning. The Milligan Road wall has been demolished and the turnstiles shut, areas of seating are roped off and one of the new floodlights is positioned in what is now the outfield. The plan seems to be to shift everything – the poor old George Geary, the boundary and all – inwards, to make room for – the last time I heard – some flats. At the moment it is all a little disconcerting, but then, as I said earlier, we Men of Vision must expect to be misunderstood, and I have every faith it will look nice when it’s finished.
In developing a cricket team, as in building a garden, there is a slow, ecologically sound way and a quick and easy one. The first is to plant your own seeds and bulbs and nurture them to maturity, the second to buy your plants in fully formed from elsewhere. Since the turn of the decade Leicestershire have been pursuing the first approach, relying on young, locally produced talent (Broad, Taylor, Cobb, Smith, Thakor, Buck, Gurney et al.) and a fat lot of good it’s done us too.
To shift the metaphor to vegetable gardening, it’s as though we have been growing our own delicious organic lettuces, tomatoes and peas, only to find that, just as they were ripening, our bigger and richer neighbours have jumped over the garden fence and pinched them. Having had enough of this, our recent recruitment policy has been the equivalent of saying “Sod it – let’s send out for a takeaway“. In this scenario Horton, Pettini and Dexter are a pretty solid chicken tikka, pilau rice and naan bread meal deal, with Cosgrove, McKay, Shreck and O’Brien, I suppose, a four-pack of cold beer in the fridge.
From 2013-14 Leicestershire had no effective on-field leadership, effectively no overseas player (even when he was somewhere in the vicinity of the ground, Ronnie Sarwan created a double absence) and, at times, fielded seven or eight players under the age of 25. It is hardly surprising, in the circumstances, that we never won a match.
The new side has a pretty hard-nosed, (metaphorically) hairy-arsed (though, no doubt warm-hearted) South Australian core of Cosgrove, McKay and Coach Andrew McDonald, and are an experienced and battle-hardened crew all round (eight of this week’s side were over thirty).
I make no predictions as to where they’ll finish this season, but anyone expecting them to roll over without a fight, as they too often did in the recent past, is in for a nasty shock. They have already brushed Glamorgan aside by an innings and would have been odds-on to beat Kent this week, had the game not been endlessly interrupted by 57 varieties of Winter, and might have won anyway had it not been for a circumspect century by Daniel Bell-Drummond.
This side may be hard to beat, but nothing (apart from a “mystery” spinner) wins matches like a bowler of genuine pace and Leicestershire appear to think they have might have found one in the one young, home-grown member of the side, Zak Chappell. Zak is a young-looking 19 (he looks young even to my daughter), who has so far managed to evade the England age group set-ups (I’m told he was a late developer at cricket).
He made his first-class debut last season, making 96 from no. 10 (he can bat too, in a “long-levered” way). Before this match I had seen him bat for Harborough and bowl for the Seconds, when he always seemed to be stepping gingerly and bowling within himself (he has already been bedevilled by injuries), but, although I’ve been told that he is potentially genuinely quick (on the one occasion he was allowed to bowl for Harborough he took seven wickets in four overs), until Monday I’d never seen him do so.
His moment came when, late on in Kent’s first innings, he was given the second new ball. He had been told to concentrate on bowling fast and that is what he did, with a fluency in his approach and delivery I’d not seen before.
There was a little spraying, but he had a difficult chance dropped in the gully, induced a mistimed flat-batted slap to mid-wicket and, finally, smashed the last man’s stumps with a straight full one. They might bristle at the suggestion, but there was something almost touching about the way McKay and Shreck, positioned at mid-off and -on, offered advice and arm-round-the-shoulder encouragement to the young tyro, and how he was encouraged to lead the side off the field.
When Kent batted again, he came on in about the tenth over and carried on where he had left off, hurrying the top-order, but, after two balls of his second over, he seemed to pull up lame, in the way that racehorses do, and almost as distressingly (though he was led off the pitch by the physio for treatment rather than taken away to be destroyed ).
Even the least poetic of men (Lord Emsworth, for instance, or “Ticker” Mitchell), can sometimes reveal a softer side when it comes to nurturing vulnerable young blooms, and, no doubt, business considerations aside, the hard-nosed Leicestershire leadership must be hoping fervently that Zak’s Springtime promise has not been nipped in the bud by this cruel late frost.