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Harsh Durham punishment reflects poorly on ECB

Durham's Chester-le-Street ground was developed as an international venue at the bidding of the ECB PA Photos

If it is the brutality of the ECB's decision to punish Durham that strikes first, it is the inconsistency that follows close behind.

Oh, yes. There is some logic in the ECB's stance. A financial punishment would clearly have been inappropriate and this action - relegation and a heavy points deductions for next season - certainly sends out a strong deterrent.

Against what though, is unclear. Against building a ground in an out-of-town location more than 20 years ago? Against bidding for international games in an over-crowded market place? Against slipping into debt? If so, the ECB needs to be relegating a few other teams.

The only difference between Durham and Glamorgan is that, at Durham, the creditors - notably the local council - declined to waive the debt. In Cardiff, they allowed the taxpayer to pick up the bill. Warwickshire owe Birmingham City Council around £20m and have already benefited from a "repayment holiday".

So, if the ECB is to be consistent, shouldn't Glamorgan, who were stripped of a Test in 2012 and obliged to swap a fixture in 2013 after struggling to pay staging agreements for Sri Lanka Test in 2011, be treated in the same manner?

And what is the difference between Durham and Hampshire? Or, indeed, Yorkshire? Hampshire, the beneficiaries of this action, have been bailed out to the tune of £10m or more by Rod Bransgrove, while Yorkshire are indebted to Colin Graves. The club owes - and continues to pay interest upon - trusts set-up by Graves totalling £24m. All were insolvent. The difference is that Hampshire and Yorkshire found benefactors; Durham found judgement. The ECB, with reserves of £70m and more, could have taken a more sympathetic approach.

Such was Yorkshire's plight that, in interviews with ESPNcricinfo, Graves referred to Yorkshire as bankrupt and "48 hours from being written off". So we can only presume that Durham are not being punished for financial mismanagement but for failing to find a sugar daddy to bail them out.

Did Durham have to be punished at all? Might the ECB not have reflected that it was, at least in part, complicit in Durham's descent into debt? Might it not have concluded that, having encouraged Durham to build an international venue - a condition of being granted first-class status in 1992 - and then given them a May Test against Sri Lanka starting on a Friday, it had contributed to the difficulties the club has faced?

Might it not have reflected that, by encouraging the counties to bid against one another to host international games, things were always going to end this way?

And might the ECB not even have reflected that it, like the banks that offered 120% mortgages before the economic crash, had extended credit to Durham far beyond the reasonable? The ECB now admits it has been working on this rescue package for the best part of a year. In that case, why was the Test against Sri Lanka allowed to take place in Chester-le-Street? Why were Hampshire or Nottinghamshire not incentivised to take on that game?

This episode is every bit as much the ECB's fault as it is Durham's. It is an inevitable product of the system.

Besides, who does this decision punish? Does it punish the officials at Durham who, years ago, embarked on a course that always threatened to end this way? Hardly. Some are dead, some have moved on or retired and one of them (Gordon Hollins, once commercial director at Durham) is now chief operating officer of the professional game at the ECB.

Does it punish the investors who involved themselves in the club when they thought hosting international cricket was a lucrative business or the officials at the ECB who created this system and extended the club's line of credit? Of course not.

No, this is a decision that punishes the players and the supporters. Innocent victims of decisions over which they had no control.

It won't help them, either. At least one of the players - Keaton Jennings, who recently signed a new deal with the club - is understood to have a clause in their contract allowing them to leave if they are relegated. Those supporters who enjoyed Durham's run to T20 Finals Day this year may conclude there is little point attending in 2017; the points deduction is too much of a handicap. And you can bet that the next club in need of financial assistance will call Wonga before it calls the ECB. The governing body needs to take a more benevolent approach than this.

The shame is that, as a cricket club, Durham has excelled. Yes, as a business they have failed and as a business they need to change. But no cricket team had been in the top division for as long (11 years) before today. Only a couple of weeks ago, Ben Stokes, keen to play when he could easily have rested, bowled his side to a crucial victory over Surrey in a thrilling passage of play that seemed to have avoided relegation. To snatch that away devalues so much that went before.

Might the ECB have taken such a hard line to make a point? Might it have taken this opportunity to remind the counties of their precarious finances and of the need to embrace a new T20 competition? You would hope not.

There are lessons to learn from Durham. We can see (as we can from Hampshire) that out-of-town cricket grounds do not work. And we can see (as we can see from Hampshire and as we will see from Northants) that private ownership (Durham, like Hampshire, is not a members' club) brings more problems than it solves. Sympathy for privately owned clubs is limited; if they don't share their profits with the wider game, why would the wider game want to share their losses? Nor will it be forgotten that, a few years ago, Durham breached the salary cap. They are not blameless.

Most of all, though, we can see that the arms race by which international games were allocated for a decade or more did not work. And we can see that producing players for England is not sufficiently rewarded. A club that has uncovered such gems as Mark Wood and Stokes should not be begging for help from its governing body. It should be cherished and nurtured.

At some clubs, this setback would spark an exodus. But at Durham? There has long been a sense of unity about Durham that other clubs have admired and envied. And it has long been said in county circles that it is hard to drag their players away from the north-east. Maybe the examples of Scott Borthwick and Mark Stoneman show that times have changed. Or maybe this is just the event to redouble their determination and renew their sprit. If Stokes and Wood are ever made available to them in 2017, some Division Two batsmen will find themselves unwitting victims of this episode.

There is not much appetite around the first-class counties for punishment of Durham. There is an acceptance that their days as a Test-hosting ground are over (for the foreseeable future, anyway) and an acceptance that they required some intervention. But punishment? No. That comes from the ECB, which has somehow tarnished one of the most wonderful finishes to the county season for years into a squabble about finances and legal action. The reverse alchemists have done it again.

Well-governed sport is defined by events on the pitch. Increasingly in English cricket, we see decisions made in committee rooms transcending events on the field. It reflects poorly on the sport and, most of all, poorly on the administrators.