"Thirty degrees every day, not a cloud in the sky for a fortnight and we come back to this," murmured Kevin Curran, peeking suspiciously at leaden skies. Northamptonshire's season loosener against Cambridge University this week must already be in doubt, which would pitch Curran straight into the front line. In late August, Surrey v Northamptonshire at The Oval might have a title-deciding ring to it, the sort of game the perennial erratics of county cricket tend to breeze; in late April, chilled hands and cold feet will make it a lottery, the first challenge of Curran's captaincy credentials.
Any doubts about the style of the new leadership were dispelled by the rigours of pre- season training in Zimbabwe. No gentle stretching or odd jog round the pitch. Curran drafted in the fitness coach of the Springboks and the squad trained hard every day for a fortnight. "He's not short of ideas or energy," said Steve Coverdale, chief executive of Northamptonshire, with the resigned air of a man who has experienced the odd ear-bashing down the years. Curran is not one to keep opinions to himself, though 15 years of county cricket has tempered his original southern African arrogance. Northamptonshire - and his previous club, Gloucestershire, for that matter - might be about to discover unlikely officer material. At the age of 38, elevation has come at a timely moment for the old infantryman.
"I've been successful as an all-rounder year in, year out and I was beginning to wonder what else there was to play for. I was getting a bit bored," Curran said. "Two years ago, when Lamby [Allan Lamb] left, I thought I might have a chance of getting the captaincy. I didn't and I began to feel I never would. Now, I'm on a two-year contract and I'm captain, which is an extra challenge. I want to help the county win something."
In the rush to nationalise Graeme Hick, a few other talented English- qualified Zimbabweans were brushed aside. Curran was one, Brian Davison, of Leicestershire, another. With Lamb and the Smiths, the England dressing room was sounding too much like the Boland anyway. Curran, an aggressive and consistent all-rounder, never quite posted the numbers to sway the press or selectors. By the time Zimbabwe became a Test-playing nation, Curran's career in county cricket was too well set to risk employment as an overseas player. His frustration at talented, complacent, cricketers, of whom Northamptonshire can boast its share, stems partly from his own sense of deprivation, partly from a damning critique of county cricket.
"A lot of county cricketers tend to do just enough to get another contract," he said. "If they fail today, the feeling is that there's always tomorrow. That has to change. Practising the right way is another aspect of it. You lose a game and the coach calls everyone in for what the players call 'naughty-boy nets'. Everyone goes through the motions. No one achieves anything. You watch the All Blacks and their practices are actually harder than the games."
Despite recent flirtations with the Championship title, Northamptonshire have found their reputation for being good losers hard to shake off. "I remember coming here with Gloucestershire when the first seven in their batting line-up were all Test players, Lamb, Larkins, Cook. We wondered how on earth we were going to bowl them out. But we didn't have to. They got themselves out. We've always been a highly talented side, but we've never really played as a unit. We can win games comfortably and lose them comfortably.
"Sides like Leicestershire and Glamorgan have shown what can be done if you work as a team. We have to start doing that. I think they used something like 13 players in the season; after three games last season we had used 17. Part of that was down to injuries, but we also didn't seem to know what our best side was." Transition was the official explanation of Northamptonshire in 1997. Fourth from bottom of the Championship demanded a more drastic reaction.
Having discarded the gentle qualities of Rob Bailey after two years, the committee turned to Curran to motivate the old lags and nurture the younger talents: Alec Swann, David Sales, Mal Loye, Richard Montgomerie and the two young spinners, Michael Davies and Jason Brown. Devon Malcolm, recruited from Derbyshire, and Franklin Rose, the young West Indian recommended by Curtly Ambrose, form a potent new-ball partnership. Each player has been told what is expected, personally and as a team. They, in turn, know what to expect. Curran wears his heart on his sleeve.
"I've always been a winner and a lot of people in the past have not enjoyed my attitude because I've been a bit arrogant on the field," Curran explained. "I'm quite prepared to go and have a beer with them afterwards. But they make a judgement on a player's attitude. It's why England are in the middle of the pile, because of that sort of 'softly softly' approach." No more softly, softly for Northamptonshire. Curran farms ostriches back home. But a few feathers might fly over the county ground before summer ends.Reuse content