Worcestershire's big clean-up begins
Perhaps it was the first signs of spring-like sunshine putting everything into a cheerier perspective. Or maybe Worcestershire are so used to taking a walloping from elements beyond their control that nothing puts them down for too long. Either way, there was a remarkable air of optimism around New Road this week.
"Always look on the bright side of life" might have been written especially with this particular county ground in mind. While seeing a cricket arena disappear for weeks on end beneath several feet of water cannot begin to compare with the heart-wrenching misery felt by those whose homes and possessions have been submerged under these awful winter floods, Worcestershire deserve a sporting honour for resilience.
New Road has been flooded three times since Christmas Eve. On two occasions, the water pouring in from the nearby River Severn came and went relatively quickly. But on the third occasion it just kept rising, to a depth of between eight and nine feet at the lowest point of the ground - and remained in place for three weeks until finally receding last Sunday.
Debris, ranging from whole trees to a small mountain of rubbish, has been left behind, along with the silt and mud that means this most photographed of country grounds currently resembles something closer to a brown field site than a glorious greensward.
But are Worcestershire downhearted? Well, if so then this visitor failed to find any evidence. They have no other choice. John Elliott, Worcestershire's president, told this week's annual meeting that between £7 million and £8 million has been spent on New Road's new facilities. No wonder, then, that come hell or high water, they have no intention of leaving their base by the river.
From the elderly member who popped in to survey the damage and declared "oh, I thought it would be a lot worse than this," to stadium manager Paul Phillips who insisted "the summer floods of 2007 were far messier" there was a determination not to appear glum.
Elliott told the annual meeting "spring is not far away... we can all look forward to cricket", an upbeat tone reinforced by the chief executive, David Leatherdale, whose message to ESPNcricinfo was: "We are very optimistic about starting the season at New Road."
Really, David? Yes, really. True, Worcestershire have already decided that their pre-season friendlies against Gloucestershire and Glamorgan, on March 24 and 31, will be played at the county's second home of Kidderminster. And, as luck would have it, Worcestershire's first Championship match, against Hampshire, is an away fixture. But that still means Leatherdale and his staff have little more than six weeks to turn New Road's receding lake into a fully operational first-class cricket ground for the four-day visit of Kent on Sunday April 13.
So can they do it? Stadium manager Phillips insists that all the off-field facilities will be ready. After delivering a watery virtual tour of the ground - "it was between eight and nine feet deep over there, about seven feet near the Graeme Hick Pavilion and around five to six feet deep on The View (Worcestershire's new five-storey administrative and conference facility) side - he turned his attention to the next few weeks.
"It's mainly manpower we need and everyone here mucks in," said Phillips. "At the end of a season, everything at flood level is moved to a higher level. We prepare for the worst because we are used to flooding. And the new facilities are built to be resilient to flooding. We've had a couple of broken windows, but that's it. So what we face is a big clean-up operation.
"We'll get it done so at the moment I don't see that anything is going to stop us, from a stadium perspective, from starting here on April 13 as scheduled."
Sadly, though, it will take more than a blast with a pressure washer, or a rub down with a large cloth, to get the outfield spick and span and the square back up to scratch. The seam bowlers are unlikely to go wanting.
"I know this sounds quite flippant but we are used to winter floods," said Leatherdale, the former Worcestershire player who now serves as chief executive. "Yes, it was one of the highest we have had and the ground is looking a little brown but even over the last couple of days it has dried out immensely with a bit of sunshine.
"The square itself would appear to be okay - the grass looks as though it has survived relatively well. So it's just as case of waiting for it to dry and then we can get on it and do some proper preparation."
That will be the cue for groundsman Tim Packwood and his squad to work their magic, as they have so many times before. Elliott reckons the ground has flooded eight times in the last 18 months alone - and on goodness knows how many occasions in the near quarter of a century that Packwood has been with Worcestershire. This is the only county ground with great floods of the past proudly recorded on a chart at the back of a stand.
"Tim has been with us 25 years this year, man and boy," said Leatherdale. "It's a bloody hard job. But he and the rest of the guys are fantastic and I know they'll be working incredibly hard to get it ready for the start of the season."
Packwood was at Kidderminster on Wednesday, helping the groundsman at that club venue while Worcestershire's HQ was drying out. If the worst comes to the worst, the club could always move the Kent Championship fixture to a site where they know they will be welcome. But home is where the heart is - and where all the big money has been spent.
"All the development we've done at this ground has been designed to help offset the risk element," said Leatherdale. "To help us as be as viable and sustainable as possible by making sure that on the 300 days of the year when we are not playing cricket we are generating money, through staging events such as conferences and wedding receptions, which can be put back into cricket.
"And throughout this winter's floods the only few days we were shut was when the bridge over the Severn was closed and no-one could get here."
Worcestershire will apply for £5,000 emergency government funding for flood-stricken businesses, plus three months' rate relief, to help them prepare the ground in time for the start of the new county season. It will be a contribution at best.
But this is no time to let pessimism take hold. Leatherdale and Co, like many across the country, have fingers crossed for a half decent March - and, given one, do not bet against being able to watch cricket at New Road on April 13.
David Lloyd is a former chief cricket correspondent of PA and the Evening Standard