Six years on from Kevin Pietersen's 355 not out, Leicestershire return to The Oval
The club has endured a tough run since the 2015 fixture, but things are looking up
Six years have passed since Leicestershire's last fixture at The Oval, but the game is not easily forgotten by anyone associated with the club. Winless in the Championship for two-and-a-half years at the time, Leicestershire were at the receiving end of one of the most extraordinary county innings in recent memory, as Kevin Pietersen struck 355 not out and asked the ECB: "What more can I do?"
The innings itself was only part of the story. Sixteen months after his last game for England, Pietersen sensed a way back after a change of the guard at the ECB, with Colin Graves, the new chairman, encouraging him to play for a county if he had genuine ambitions to return to international cricket. At the end of the second day's play, when he had reached 326 not out overnight, Pietersen met with Andrew Strauss, the incoming director of cricket. Strauss confirmed that the door would remain closed.
"There was so much press around The Oval going into it, but we went into it as a normal day," recalls Rob Taylor, the former Scotland allrounder who went wicketless in the first innings. "[Kumar] Sangakkara and Pietersen were both 35 not out at the end of day one and we thought it could be a fairly long day, but Clint McKay got Sangakkara pretty early on and we thought 'now let's get KP'.
"Ben Raine said something to him at one point, and he came back with a pretty good response. I think he questioned what Ben had ever done for English cricket and Rainey just said: 'yeah, fair enough mate'. It was one of those moments where you try to take yourself out of the game and realise that it's pretty special. We went through stages when if we'd had 15 fielders, it still wouldn't have been enough."
Leicestershire had started the season under a new captain and coach in Mark Cosgrove and Andrew McDonald, and had no answers to the questions Pietersen posed. He added 101 for the ninth wicket with Chris Tremlett, who made 30, and 139 for the tenth alongside Matt Dunn, who made 5. All told, he racked up 36 fours and 15 sixes to give Surrey a 265-run lead.
Perhaps the most chastening aspect was what came next. In their second innings, Leicestershire racked up 480 in 161.1 overs, leaving Surrey a seemingly impossible target of 216 in 24 overs on the final evening; Pietersen, who had suffered a calf strain, was not required, as Steven Davies' unbeaten hundred saw Surrey home with 14 balls to spare.
"The club had a few issues at the time," Taylor says. "Winning the T20 in 2011 was a highlight but it was pretty slim pickings after that, with a phase of a number of different coaches coming in. Macca [McDonald] set his stall out to change thing and we did start winning a few games, and things started looking up."
It was only a month later that Leicestershire finally broke their 992-day duck by beating Essex in Chelmsford, and the following season, they managed to avoid the wooden spoon for the first time since 2012. They were back at the bottom of the pile in 2017 under Pierre de Bruyn, and while they were not far off promotion in Paul Nixon's first season as coach, in 2018, the following year again proved to be a struggle.
There were glimmers of optimism in 2020, with a win against Lancashire the highlight of the club's Bob Willis Trophy campaign, and a tied quarter-final against eventual T20 Blast champions Nottinghamshire that saw them eliminated on wickets lost. And despite a chastening start to this season, with an innings loss against Hampshire, the club is positive that it is on the right track.
There has been a change in personnel, too. Lewis Hill, who made his maiden first-class ton in the 2015 fixture at The Oval, is the only member of that squad still on the staff, and while some players continue to leave for pastures new - Zak Chappell and Tom Taylor are notable recent departures - there is now a core to build around in the Championship, featuring Colin Ackermann, Hassan Azad, Callum Parkinson and Gavin Griffiths.
"We were the second-youngest team in the opening round of games," Sean Jarvis, the club's chief executive since last March, says. "You'll have the highs and the lows with inexperience. Our players have been hurting and were disappointed with the manner of the defeat but they have been training hard and will try to bounce back this week.
"The group we've been placed in is with a lot of first-division teams but our lads want to pit their wits against those players. Each game we go into, we want to progress. It's a baptism of fire for us to take on teams like Hampshire, Surrey and Somerset, but that's what we want."
Off the field, the club appear to have navigated its way through a tough financial period, and while money remains tight, there are positive signs. Three promising young players in Rishi Patel, Ed Barnes and Scott Steel were brought in from Essex, Yorkshire and Durham respectively over the winter, while Marcus Harris is in line to play his first game of the season next week. Then Josh Inglis and Naveen-ul-Haq will arrive for the T20 Blast. Sponsorship deals have been signed following a "charm offensive" with local businesses, and the return of crowds from May 17 - and maximum capacity from June 21 - will be an important landmark.
"We can't get crowds in soon enough," Jarvis says. "The impact of the pandemic is still hurting us. We're up to about £1.5million of missing revenue and that will carry on. We've sold out hospitality for the Yorkshire fixture on June 25 already and are trying to get additional hospitality in just for that game to generate income. Previously the club would have accepted 70% capacity for that game but not anymore - we want sell-outs for all of our T20 fixtures."
More immediately, the focus is on turning things around after the defeat against Hampshire, against a Surrey side which will feature Kemar Roach for the first time this season. The clubs have not met at all since 2015, following Surrey's promotion to Division One and with the regional split of the domestic white-ball competitions keeping them apart, and both teams come into the game on the back of opening-round defeats.
"It seems like an exciting place to be with Nico in charge," Taylor says. "Things are starting to happen and you're seeing that on the field. Leicestershire have always given young players an opportunity to come through - I don't think it's ever going to be one of those big-hitting clubs but it's certainly one that can punch above its weight."
"Leicestershire's recent history in Championship cricket has not been the best and we want to start the process of changing that, which isn't going to happen overnight," Jarvis adds. "We've drawn a line under it and this is the start of our new journey. What went on all those years ago with KP is an old book. This is a new one."
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98