David English, Rob Key, Lord Sarath Abeysundera and Freddie Flintoff
At first glance, Lord Abeysundera of Lower Elkstone is not the sort of chap you'd expect to ignite a palace revolution in the tired corridors of Grace Road. For one thing he's Sri Lankan - and for another he has never watched Leicestershire play a county match. Perfect credentials some would say. At least he has something in common with the rest of the fan base.
However, this 59-year-old textile baron deserves to be taken seriously when he declares that the time is ripe for Leicestershire to become England's first professional Asian club. Abey, as he's known, astonished the horsey set in 1995 by buying his own cricket ground in the heart of Fernie Hunt country, then establishing an all-Sri Lankan team which shot through the lower divisions of Leicestershire's Everard League and now sits, albeit precariously, in the premier division.
His lovingly tended field in the hamlet of Illston on the Hill is as incongruous as a pie-and-mash shop in downtown Colombo. The only white faces belong to the opposition. It's not unusual to see a Buddhist priest on the pavilion balcony.
His lordship had several obstacles to overcome before joining the ranks of Sir Paul Getty as the only private cricket ground owners in Britain. Not least was buying the abandoned meadow in the first place. The trustees for some reason turned down his £100,000 offer, so he persuaded his English solicitor to bid for the ground at auction and got it for £72,000.
Abey smiles: "It was they who lost out, not me." Family and friends were convinced his marbles had come loose. "They still argue that a property in Leicester would have been a much better investment but I tell them it couldn't give me the 12 years of satisfaction I've had from the cricket. This was my dream."
Incidentally, the Lord of Lower Elkstone is not a hereditary peer. The family bought him the title as a 50th birthday present. It comes with shooting rights on a 2,000-acre estate in Staffordshire. When Abey bought Illston Heights, the big house on the hill, his conversion to country squire was complete.
He can now walk out of his back garden to the cricket ground. Villagers imagined that Asian wedding parties and Buddhist monks meandering along country lanes would dent the value of their houses. They were mistaken. Bob Tattershall played cricket here in the days when the rector bowled to the blacksmith and nobody bothered about helmets or run rates: "We couldn't believe our eyes when Sri Lanka's World Cup-winning side turned up to christen the new club. Illston was suddenly on the map."
You don't have to be Asian to join. Says Abey: "We're open to anyone. I want to build the most successful club in the county."
With census experts forecasting that in 2010 Leicester will be the first British city in which the ethnic minority becomes a majority, he realises there are even bigger fish to fry. "Colleagues have been asking why I tackle the Leicestershire problem. At first I wasn't interested." He changed his tune on Leicestershire's pre-season tour to Sri Lanka which he helped to organise. "Frankly I wasn't impressed with the set-up. Now that they've let Stuart Broad go to Nottinghamshire, maybe it's time to act. The potential for an all-Asian Leicestershire is enormous. We'd get big names and big crowds."
Grace Road's facilities make him chuckle: "One of their stands looks like an aircraft hangar and has 1936 carved on it. I'm sure we could do better than that." His lawyers are studying the club's constitution.
More immediately pressing last weekend was the fate of Illston Abey's first XI. After rolling the wicket and mowing the outfield, Lord Abeysundera locked the players in the dressing room and let rip: "We're in relegation trouble because you're letting me down. We've only made 200 runs in 50 overs once all season. Get out there and perform."
This extraordinary owner/coach/groundsman even threatened to make a comeback as wicketkeeper/batsman if Illston went down. "All I have to do is lose two stones." Although restricted to 161 for eight by Ashby Hastings, Illston fought back to dismiss their relegation rivals for 103. Abey would have been cartwheeling around the boundary if he hadn't been carrying that extra weight. "Sometimes I think he loves cricket more than me," laughed his wife, Shanti. Abey replied, deadpan: "Do you want that in writing?" Grace Road watch out.