Will Sri Lanka Test be Durham's last?
News that Ben Stokes will not appear in the second Test comes as the latest setback to Durham, a club struggling with fortune and finance.
With ticket sales for the game modest - the most recent ECB sales report states that 25,373 have been pre-sold for the first four days, around 45% of those available - the club dearly needed Stokes, something of a local hero, to attract last-minute buyers. If they had any luck at all, it would be bad.
If you judge Durham as a centre of cricketing excellence they are in excellent health. Unlike some high-profile rivals, they are committed to developing and backing players from the region. While there have been a few experienced pros from other countries brought in over the last decade, the only high-profile acquisition from another club in recent years came when Ian Blackwell joined from Somerset.
They routinely field sides including eight or nine players developed from within their own system and have produced several England fast bowlers, notably Stokes, Mark Wood, Steve Harmison and Graham Onions. Without their introduction to the County Championship, many could have been lost. They have a valuable role within the English game.
But if you judge Durham as a business, they are failing. They are at least £5m in debt and have invested in a business model that does not seem to be working. They need help from the ECB to remain viable and are currently in talks to both reschedule their staging payment for the Sri Lanka Test and help with the debt. They can ill-afford to take a hit on this game.
Durham were not dealt a handful of aces with the allocation of this Test match. It was wrapped up in a package of games that included the Ashes Test of 2013 but, at the time they bid (it is costing them around £950,000), they did not know that it would follow so close on the heels of another Test against the same opposition in the north of England in May. Selling any game in the region at this time of year was always likely to prove challenging; selling two games against Sri Lanka - who do not attract the numbers of some other touring sides - was always going to end badly.
To make matters worse, the game starts on Friday - meaning there is only one day of corporate sales (it is sold out, which is both pleasing and infuriating at the same time as it shows what might have been) - and is played over a Bank Holiday, when the club feels that a number of prospective spectators may take holidays. While the club's chief executive, David Harker, believes that ticket sales in the last 48 hours have been strong this allocation represents, by any standards, poor planning from the ECB.
The underlying problem is familiar: in the need to satisfy broadcasters, England are squeezing more international games into their home season than the market can stand. While it is easy to suggest reducing the schedule, the impact of that could be disastrous. Lower broadcast revenues could sink clubs and reduce the money distributed to the England teams and to grassroots. There is not an easy solution.
The ECB executive understand all this. They know the England team plays too much for the market and the players' long-term health and they know there is not enough cricket to sustain all the international venues. They have attempted to change the business model by restricting the domestic T20 league but have run-in to predictable, and it would seem insurmountable, problems.
"It's not really a Durham problem," Harker told ESPNcricinfo. "It's cricket's problem. If we have high-season games against good opposition, I am very confident we can sell them well. But early-season Tests against less high-profile opposition is a real challenge for us."
The worry is that Durham's domestic T20 sales are also modest. As things stand, they have barely sold 15,000 advance tickets for this year's NatWest Blast; about 15% of those available. That compares to 80,000 for Surrey, 50,000 for Somerset and 55,000 for Middlesex. Even Worcestershire, with a small staff and ground, are almost 10,000 up on Durham.
"We haven't cracked the T20 market yet," Harker said. "And I don't completely understand why. We are trying to engage the football-loving audience, but it's taking some time."
The idea of playing a game at a football ground has been mooted, though there are considerable practical issues, not least the ground dimensions. In desperate times, though, such concerns may need to be swallowed.
Durham are not alone in their struggles. Evidence suggests that the newest of the international hosts - Cardiff, Southampton and Durham - are regularly struggling to compete with the long-established venues. There are various theories as to why that should be but the main one would appear to be simply that a high-volume of spectators have yet to get in the habit of attending in those areas.
Furthermore, while some grounds - notably Lord's, The Oval and Trent Bridge - have some regularity as to when their games might be scheduled (The Oval has become known as the venue for the last Test of the summer), the newer venues are scrabbling around without any pattern or plan. It may also be relevant that Durham and Southampton are based away from major conurbations. Lord's and The Oval, by contrast, have excellent records of selling major matches.
Hampshire's sales figures for both the ODI against Sri Lanka (about 10,800 tickets sold) and their T20 games (16,500) are little better than Durham's. Glamorgan, who have had about £6m of debt written off, are progressing, but slowly: they have sold almost 18,000 T20 Blast tickets, 11,000 for the ODI against Sri Lanka and about 6,000 for the ODI against Pakistan.
"If we had time and a predictable fixture list, we would be fine," Harker said. "But we understand that all these games are in demand by other major venues and we understand that the ECB can earn greater income if they are played in those venues. That income is for the greater good of the game. We understand all that."
Harker bristles at the suggestion that Durham have overspent in the past. While they are the only side to have been punished for breaching the county salary cap (at the time, in 2012, about £1.8m), there were mitigating circumstances. They had several players in and around the England team and found themselves with a couple coming off central contracts at the same time. The salary bill this year is roughly £800,000 below the salary cap.
Equally, they cannot really be criticised for building an international venue that was somewhat beyond their means. One of the agreements they made with the ECB upon becoming a first-class county in 1992 was that they would build such a home and, with the ECB looking to incentivise the older venues to upgrade, they provided some much-needed competition. The standard of venues has improved considerably all around the country. Sadly, so has the level of debt.
"We've international overheads and domestic income," Harker said. "But it was one of the conditions when we were granted first-class status that we had to develop a stadium."
For those reasons and more, there is every indication that the ECB will help Durham through their current crisis.
But precedent suggests that assistance could come at a cost. For example, when Glamorgan were obliged to reschedule their staging repayments for the poorly attended Sri Lanka Test of 2011, the West Indies Test of the following year was taken from them and reallocated to Lord's. Whether that was punitive or practical - Lord's sold the game far more successfully than Glamorgan - depends a little on who you ask.
While nobody has presented that idea in this case, the discussion around other counties is that Durham could be bailed out significantly - perhaps to the tune of £2m or more - if they agree to withdraw from the market to host Test cricket. Realistically, they would have little choice but to accept if such an offer is made and, with talk of reducing the number of Tests hosted by England each year, there is every chance that this match against Sri Lanka will be the last Test played at Chester-le-Street for the foreseeable future.
The difference to the Glamorgan situation is that Durham probably can sell the allocation of games they have left. As things stand, they are scheduled to host ODIs against South Africa, Australia and Pakistan in 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively, as well as a T20 against West Indies in 2017. But there are no further Tests scheduled for the ground.
And, if the game is serious about reaching out to new markets, an international venue in the northeast makes sense in many ways. It spreads the reach of the game, inspires and encourages young players and may provide a financial fillip to a club that, from a cricketing perspective, continues to deliver. If the secret of successfully staging international cricket really is largely about habit, Durham need to be shown patience and faith.
So the logic for allowing them to keep the limited-overs games - and to apply for more in the future - is strong. There is a lot going right at the club and English cricket is stronger for a fit and functioning Durham.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo