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Durham face relegation if ECB impose points deduction

Durham have struggled financially throughout the 2016 season Getty Images

Durham could face the prospect of a points deduction, and possible relegation, as a consequence of receiving financial support from the ECB during the 2016 season that finished last week.

In spite of a troubled summer off the field, Durham retained their Division One status thanks to a strong finish to the season, including back-to-back victories in their final two games over Surrey and Hampshire, who were relegated alongside Nottinghamshire.

However, to retain their viability, the club had to call upon assistance from the ECB - including an accelerated annual fee payment, as well as the rescheduling of their £923,000 staging fee for the third Test against Sri Lanka in May - to help service debts to the local council, believed to be in the region of £5-6 million.

Now, according to a report in The Times, the ECB is considering whether to impose a penalty on Durham as punishment. A points deduction would appear to be the only realistic sanction available to the board, given that a financial penalty would merely exacerbate the club's issues.

However, the situation for the ECB is made more complicated by the circumstances of this year's County Championship, in which two teams were relegated but only one, Essex, was promoted, to pave the way for next year's eight-team first division.

Whether it should be Hampshire who earn the right to remain in the top flight, having finished 31 points clear of the bottom club, Nottinghamshire, or whether the division two runners-up, Kent, should be promoted alongside Essex (as they would have been in every other season since the two-division structure was introduced in 2000) is a point that is sure to be robustly debated in the event of any sanction.

In addition, Durham may argue, with some justification, that any penalty would be unfair, given that they are being penalised, in effect, for carrying out the wishes of the governing body. Their granting of first-class status, in 1992, included the stipulation that the county should develop an international-standard venue. However, the risk of hosting international matches has since shifted from the ECB to the counties themselves, and Durham have found it hard to compete for the biggest games against the more powerful and better established venues to the south.

There is no suggestion of financial impropriety at Durham, and other Test-match grounds have accrued greater debts in the course of modernising their venues. However, the club's remote location makes it harder to diversify and generate the sort of revenues that keep their rivals solvent.

The club, which won the County Championship three times in six seasons between 2008 and 2013, has proven itself to be one of the most successful counties in terms of producing England players, with Ben Stokes and Mark Wood among the most recent examples. However, in a sign of potential struggles to come, they have lost two of their most influential batsmen of recent seasons, with Scott Borthwick and Mark Stoneman choosing to move to Surrey.