Out of town but not out of favour
Durham 76 for 2 trail Kent 179 (van Jaarsveld 59) by 103 runs
Out ground cricket these days is not particularly fashionable for counties: too expensive to move all the required technical support; too much of a lottery when it comes to quality of pitch; too many moans from county staff that the changing rooms are too small. It is much more bother than its worth.
Yet it was something equally unfashionable that had driven Durham to schedule this week's fixture against Kent at Stockton - Elton John. Thanks to a concert on Saturday at the Riverside (and an impending one-day international), this suburban district played host to a Championship game for the 11th time since Durham became a first-class county.
Stockton is a suburban town, just outside Middlesbrough and the ground, while clearly not blessed with the architectural beauty of Durham City or even the Chester-le-Street ground, has a gentle, picturesque atmosphere. Out-ground cricket may be dying - or regularly ignored - but here's a prime example why it shouldn't be.
Stockton CC is a successful club in the high-class North-East Premier League - the same league the Durham Academy play in. Lee Daggett, the young Warwickshire swing bowler who dismissed Durham at Edgbaston for 141 last week, played here while at Durham University, so this is an area - and a pitch - clearly immersed in the county's cricketing fortunes.
And the ground was full of passionate fans, most bedecked in Durham logos on shirts and caps, the bar and food stalls didn't stop and the crowd could hear the players' chatter and the general noise of the game, something never too clear at most headquarters. Okay, the quality of the wicket might not have matched the quality of the atmosphere - but it did produce entertainment.
A slow morning session that ended with Kent on 100 for 2 - David Fulton battled to 27 from 105 balls, Martin van Jaarsveld 59 from 127 - gave way to fireworks in the afternoon. Ottis Gibson found rhythm and swing as the sun disappeared and Kent lost five for five in eight overs. A brief blitz from Andrew Hall and Darren Stevens, then the tail collapsed - all out 179. This may be the lottery pitch counties try to avoid but only two of the dismissals - van Jaasveld and Jon Lewis in Durham's reply - could really blame demons. The only other demons were in the batsmen's heads, worried about what could (but rarely did) happen, as the home side's top order showed.
As the Kent batsmen came and went from the changing rooms at square leg - the building looks more like a working men's club than a sporting facility - the Durham crowd's buzz increased. Gibson and Graham Onions kept striking from the Grangefield Road end and the bar beside the pavilion, designed bizarrely like a football dugout giving the patron's a sunken, worm-eye view, became busy through celebration and compulsory refreshment. The locals were on top and enjoying the day out.
But the politics of staging such games are enormous and in the north-east, with such an isolated and young first-class county, these politics are worse. The clubs need endorsement and financial support from local councils, then they need to prove they are the best alternative in the area, before crossing their fingers and hoping the county simply likes them and can be bothered to move from home for a few days. It is no surprise Durham, like many other counties, avoid out-ground fixtures unless their own marketing department - along with an international pop star - compels them to.
But the members love the day out - 300 can seem like 3000 in this close and intimate surrounds - many who find it difficult to travel to Chester-le-Street have cricket coming to their doorstep and they don't want to waste the opportunity. It really does bring cricket to the people and is a good experience of high-quality sport in a relaxed and accessible atmosphere.
So maybe it was the informality of the setting that did for Kent's first innings - their skipper Rob Key was playing frisbee on the outfield during lunch in flip-flops and shorts - but then this is the charm and the reason out grounds are great: kids throw balls around next to a first-class captain enjoying his break. It's not going to happen at Lord's ...
Edward Craig is deputy editor of The Wisden Cricketer