Sharp finds contentment in the Faithful City
No county better represents the England of the imagination than Worcestershire. So said Matthew Engel in Engel's England, an elegiac tour around the historic counties; a journey into the half-lost, often forgotten, rural England that is part of the psyche of the cricketing nation.
What could be more timely therefore than Worcestershire's appearance on Saturday at their first Twenty20 Finals Day - only Derbyshire now needed to complete the full set - at a time when trial matches are underway for The Hundred, which is not so much a competition as a deliberately superficial marketing exercise which seeks to reject cricket's traditions and reinvent it as a clamorous, simple game of the big city?
Worcester was The Faithful City in the English Civil War, loyal to King Charles I to the end and suffering the consequences, and nearly 400 years later the cricket club is as compliant as any when promised £1.3m a year from England's impending short-form competition, buying the view that a collapse in the numbers of recreational cricketers has arisen from the faltering popularity of the game rather than an absence from free-to-air TV and a change in cultural habits which is affecting all team sport.
County cricket has long been held to be dying, bringing to mind Engel's description of Malvern, a pretty Worcestershire town, which he suggests feels as "far removed from surrounding reality" as any in the land. An old schoolmaster tells the author: "People come to Malvern to die and then they don't." But Worcestershire, come here for winter training, too and, far from dying, they are committing their future to youth.
Worcestershire might not be the biggest county cricket club in the land, and their faith that the ground is still one of the most beautiful in the world does not bear scrutiny - the view to the cathedral is best observed through blinkers so as not to catch sight of the ugly modern architecture that now scars the ground - but the desire have the most reputable academy in English cricket is a sizeable and noble ambition.
A fast-maturing young side can now parade its worth on Finals Day. The maturing of Joe Clarke can one day delight England, Ben Cox's wicketkeeping skills would have attracted greater attention in a different era, Ed Barnard is an athletic all-rounder and Josh Tongue and Dillon Pennington - the latter who has made his breakthrough this season - are two of the most talented young pace bowlers in the country. Not to forget Pat Brown, who came from nowhere this season to be the leading wicket-taker in the competition.
Disturbingly for Worcestershire, though, Callum Ferguson, the Australian who has underpinned their season, is now back with South Australia. Moeen Ali is expected to return from England duties to skipper the side but without Ferguson in the top three his task will be much more difficult.
And disturbingly for Worcestershire, too, they must prepare for Finals Day with a home Championship match against the champions-elect Surrey when they lie in bottom place in Division One, 17 points from safety, with three matches remaining. It is difficult to imagine a more challenging scenario - although at least Edgbaston, venue for Finals Day, is only an hour up the road.
Worcestershire's progress to Finals Day has been overseen by two players with strong county links. Alex Gidman is a former all-rounder at the county, and if you believe his Twitter feed bread-maker extraordinaire; his white cob loaf seemed to rise OK last week so perhaps Worcestershire can do the same. Alongside him, Alan Richardson enjoyed a wonderful late career at New Road, even becoming one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year at 37. Richardson's involvement with Brown's debut season has been crucial.
Underpinning it all, however, is Kevin Sharp, the head coach, who is the first to recognise their contribution - " it was a no-brainer for me to hand a lot of the responsibility to them for the white-ball cricket: they pretty much run the show" - but who also deserves enormous credit for the way he has protected the quintessence of the county following the enforced departure of Steve Rhodes after a power struggle within the club's hierarchy.
Rhodes' reclamation has come as Bangladesh coach, leaving Sharp, who he first appointed on a temporary contract five years earlier, and who is five years his senior at 59, to assume command.
Sharp and Rhodes have links as Yorkshire players during the civil war over the contentious figure of Geoffrey Boycott. For both, the damage they did not just observe, but had to withstand, as players, has translated more than 30 years later into their desire to build harmonious dressing rooms and to create trusting atmospheres in which young players can perform.
"I don't think there's any doubt that my experiences at Yorkshire have stood me in good stead as a coach," Sharp agrees. "It was quite a ruthless environment if you felt lacking in confidence and belief.
"There weren't too many shoulders to lean on or people to talk to. It was very much a sink or swim environment. There were times when I probably needed some psychological support but it wasn't the done thing in those days: even in the Yorkshire club now there will be guys to do that. I feel as though one of my greatest strengths is that relationship building and trust. It takes time to build that."
Sharp was one of several victims of a wholesale clearout of Yorkshire's coaching staff in 2011 - some heavy-handed grandstanding by the then Yorkshire chairman, Colin Graves, now in the same role at the ECB - which meant that he was unable to enjoy the fruits of his labours as 2nd X1 coach.
"When I left Yorkshire six years ago it was tough because I had lads like Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, , Gary Ballance, Adam Lyth, highly talented young men who were just about to knock the door down at the next level and I had to leave and that hurt and it was difficult. The bond is still there. That's good and that's healthy and that tells you that you had some good relationships. But I've moved on. Steve Rhodes gave me the opportunity to help out initially and that developed into a fulltime job."
Now he gazes down from his office onto the backdrop of Worcester cathedral on a ground where he once made an unbeaten 260 against the West Indies U19: the predicted international career never arrived. Duncan Fearnley, a former Worcestershire chairman and bat maker, became his first bat sponsor at 15. His wife was born in the county. Sacked by Yorkshire, he wrote down his list of favourite counties: Worcestershire were No 1.
Sharp is a natural healer. "I feel I've been very fortunate to experience two very different clubs," he said. "I had my issues when I was younger, lost confidence at times. That's probably just growing up really and finding out about life. But I've come here to Worcestershire and it's a very different club with a different feel. We generally get on well with each other and the lads are quite close. It's been nice to sample two different environments."
He faces a tough week. While Worcestershire strive to save their Division One status, in the face of the Surrey strut, he admits: "When a few of our batsmen are not involved in the contest they will be slipping off to the nets to practice some white-ball stuff. It's not easy, but it's county cricket and you just have to get on with it."