Finally, some cricket! The Ageas Bowl prepares for the restart

Simon Lee left Somerset at the end of last season after 18 years with his home county. Now, in what must rank as one of the most extraordinary introductions to any job, he finds himself preparing his first ever Ageas Bowl pitch for the first Test of an international summer like no other.

If he was hoping to begin his new job under the radar then he has failed dismally. Through no fault of his own.

Lee was offered his first job at Taunton in 2001 and was unveiled as Hampshire’s first signing of the 2020 season back in September last year, replacing Nigel Gray who had come out of retirement for the 2019 season after Karl McDermott’s move to Lords the previous winter.

Now he’s getting ready to prepare a wicket that will be scrutinised more than perhaps any other pitch he has produced as cricket-starved supporters eagerly await a Test series that will be a big noise, despite being played out in front of silent and empty terraces.

Safe to say, it’s not what he imagined when he first took the post.

“It was always going to be an interesting transition, the move itself was quite a big step, getting used a new area, a new job, a bigger scale of job and then you throw in the coronavirus and lockdown into it as well,” he tells TheCC.

“It has been in at the deep-end in many ways. I can probably get my eye in a little bit before we get to that Test wicket but as a first off, you don’t really get much bigger really. It’s going to be a strange circumstance with no-one in the ground, but the cricket will still be intense.

“And we’ll be there watching it. When it was first mentioned in the press, the Ageas Bowl was mentioned as a potential venue because of the hotel. And the thought did cross my mind that my first pitch could be one for a Test match – but you have to embrace that kind of thing, don’t you? You just have to go with it.”

“If we can get a nice even contest between bat and ball and if we can get it into day five then I think that would suit everyone down to the ground. Everyone wants to maximise the time we have to play that cricket match. There’s no point going to in any one direction, whether that’s spin or pace. We just need to get a good pitch and let the cricket do the talking down to the TV for everyone.”

And having eyes on his handywork will also be something of a novelty after Lee and his assistant groundsman, Tom Cowley, have spent so long in splendid isolation at Hampshire’s West End home.

“On the site, there were two of us looking after the ground, one security guard patrolling the site and then a couple of people looking after the golf course,” says Lee.

“It was so, so quiet, deathly quiet, almost earie. It was very strange but after a while you just get used to it.

“You were working in one of the biggest stadiums in this country but there was no-one around. You were lost in your own world most of the time. I don’t mind that. Sitting on the roller, or cutting, it’s one of the only times as a head groundsman that you get to sit still and mull things over in your brain.

“Sometimes you can be so busy that you just don’t get that time. You’re running from one thing to the next and for me personally, it has helped to settle things in my brain. From that point of view, the lockdown has been fantastic for me. I’ve been able to do some good old groundsmanship and actually get used to the place a bit more. Instead of just coming out of a really bad winter, then going straight into a pre-season and then the season itself, I’ve had two months working on the ground by myself with my deputy.

“I’ve been able to get familiar with everything and find out how different things react to what I’ve been used to in the past at Taunton.”

Lee admits that a two-year spell at college in Devon apart, he has spent almost his entire working life in Somerset, with the County Ground a home from home for almost half his life.

Heading down the A303, therefore, was a big step for a man who has won back-to-back ECB Groundsman of the Year awards in the one-day category.

It’s in the longer format his opening pitch will be judged, though. And with rain in short supply across the West Country and particularly on the South Coast, a touch of the wet stuff wouldn’t go amiss at some stage this month, as cricket gears up for its return and the West Indies fly in to take on Joe Root’s side.

“We’ve not had any contact from England about these sorts of things and at the end of the day, everyone is just missing sport so much that we need to get the best pitch out we possibly can.

“If we can get a nice even contest between bat and ball and if we can get it into day five then I think that would suit everyone down to the ground. Everyone wants to maximise the time we have to play that cricket match.

“There’s no point going to in any one direction, whether that’s spin or pace. We just need to get a good pitch and let the cricket do the talking down to the TV for everyone.”

No-one can disagree with that.