Worcestershire could not have asked for a tougher test on their return to the top tier of the LV= County Championship next April, as Yorkshire will launch their title defence at New Road in the first round of matches.
But it is a fixture that at least three members of the county’s off-field brains trust will anticipate with extra relish – as explained in an interview on the ECB website with Andy Wilson.
David Leatherdale and Steve Rhodes have been part of the furniture at the club for so long that it is easy to forget they are both from Bradford, having attended schools in different parts of the Yorkshire city only a few miles, and a couple of years, apart.
“I was at Pudsey Grammar,” says Leatherdale, who is now established as Worcestershire’s chief executive having moved into administration when he retired in 2005, after an 18-season playing career in which he scored more than 10,000 first-class runs.
“Bumpy [Rhodes, the former England wicketkeeper who has been the county’s director of cricket since 2005] was across at Carlton Bolling School on the other side of Bradford, and came down here a couple of years before me. We’re both Worcester through and through now – we’ve been here so long, and the place gets under your skin.”
Leatherdale says that the days when New Road had its own Yorkshire mafia are long gone, but he and Rhodes have now been joined by a third Tyke, Kevin Sharp, who became batting coach last season – having previously been working with nearby Shropshire, with whom Worcestershire have been strengthening their links, in Minor Counties cricket.
“They’ve certainly given us a nice warm welcome back to Division One, playing against the champions,” added the chief executive. “I suppose it could be a good time to be playing them, right at the start of the season when England are still in the West Indies. Either way it will give us a good idea straight away of what we’ve got on our plates.”
Worcestershire are aiming to buck the trend of promoted counties struggling to adjust to the greater intensity of Division One, a yo-yo tendency of which they have been the most regular victims.
They have been relegated in four of the five seasons they have spent at the highest level since 2004, and this is not just a Worcestershire issue – Lancashire and Northamptonshire will be back in Division Two next summer after a single season among the elite, and in recent years Derbyshire, Essex and Kent have all gone straight back down.
They have already made one significant move to strengthen their promotion-winning squad by signing Alex Gidman from Gloucestershire.
“Realistically we’re not going to see much of Moeen Ali the way he’s started with England, so when he was awarded a central contract we felt we needed another senior player,” Leatherdale explained.
“We probably only had Mitch (Daryl Mitchell, the homegrown captain who had such an outstanding 2014 season) and Gareth Andrew who fell into that category last summer.
“In our last game of the season nine of the squad were our own academy players, starting with Daryl but also lads like Tom Kohler-Cadmore (who had just turned 20), Tom Fell (now 21) and Charlie Morris (22), who we asked to step up when we lost Alan Richardson to Warwickshire – and took 56 wickets which was exceptional.
“I know Bumpy is also hoping that Ed Barnard and Joe Clarke, who were both in the England Under-19s set-up, will be staking a claim for a regular first-team place next season. They are both in Australia this winter playing grade cricket with quite a few of our players, which will hopefully help in their development.
“Obviously it’s going to be a big challenge for all of them making the step up to Division One cricket, and facing teams like Yorkshire on a regular basis. You only have to look at the make-up of Division One next season, with six Test match grounds plus Sussex and Somerset, who have both been there for a period of time.
“To be in that company is great for us, and I think there will be a lot of people around the county game hoping that we can show it can be done.”
Worcestershire’s progress on and off the field was saluted when they received the County Recognition Award at the ECB’s Business of Cricket Awards evening in Edgbaston last week, the last gong of the night after they had been nominated in five other categories – and a tangible reward for their progress on and off the field.
Next year was always going to be a special summer at New Road, as they become the latest county to celebrate their 150th anniversary.
There have been some significant changes in the upper echelons, with the former governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King appointed president, the former England hockey goalkeeper Stephen Taylor succeeding Martyn Price as chairman, and the New Road stalwart and ex-England opener Tim Curtis moving up to vice chairman.
King has already pointed out that he has happy memories of watching Don Kenyon’s team mark Worcestershire’s 100th anniversary by winning the championship in 1964, and Leatherdale describes Curtis as “a very good sounding board for Bumpy”.
Both Leatherdale and Rhodes also remain cautiously optimistic that Saeed Ajmal will be cleared to return to New Road for a third stint, which would be a huge boost to their survival prospects. The Pakistani spin wizard has been in Loughborough working on his action after it was ruled illegal by the International Cricket Council in September.
“We’ve left it open with his agent for the moment,” Leatherdale explained. “Obviously we don’t know what is going to happen with the testing, and we’re not sure about Pakistan’s commitments. But we know that Saeed loves it with us, so if it’s possible we’d love to have him back with us.”
Worcestershire life has got under Ajmal’s skin, just as it did for Leatherdale and the other Yorkshire exiles.