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Scott Borthwick's return as captain marks Durham's levelling up

After four years with Surrey, Borthwick faces a fresh challenge in his second stint at his boyhood club

David Hopps
David Hopps
Scott Borthwick has returned to Durham after four years at Surrey  •  Getty Images

Scott Borthwick has returned to Durham after four years at Surrey  •  Getty Images

How to level up the North has become one of England's great political debates, but while politicians of rival colours joust over the best route forward, Durham's cricket club appears to be just getting on with the job.
Scott Borthwick is the latest cricketer to return, full of optimism, to the North-East following a four-year stint at Surrey. He takes up the captaincy of Durham's County Championship side adamant that, at 30, his best years are still ahead of him. And, although he does not openly admit as much, he leaves some fairly unrewarding years behind him. A new challenge has come along at an ideal time.
"I feel I've matured a lot," he said. "I left as a boy and returned as a man - a corny expression, but that's about right - a North-East boy going to the big bad world of London. You have to grow up, and you do grow up."
That boy didn't always have it easy at The Oval. The underlying impression is of a player who was highly touted as an England prospect in his mid-20s and never quite justified it. International ambitions had been stoked by four successive 1,000-run seasons on the Riverside's tricky pitches, preceded by a Test debut as a frontline legspinner in Sydney at the end of England's disastrous Ashes series of 2013-14. That selection was hard to justify, but remind a bereft England selector that a leggie is in town and reason can go out of the window.
The Oval had seemed a perfect fit, although it was Durham's financial meltdown that forced him into a decision that otherwise might never have occurred. As he headed south, he called Surrey "the Manchester United of cricket" - although, as a Sunderland fan, that did not necessarily mean a transfer of affections and he freely admitted that Durham's scores were the first he checked every day. He bought a flat, liked the coffee but came to realise that talking to people on the tube "meant you were looked at as if you were a bit of a weirdo." He is not alone in that discovery.
He had a mediocre first season in 2017 before improving form in 2018 was disrupted by a broken wrist suffered in the nets and a side strain while batting the following season when - by his own admission - he attempted something out of character by charging a bowler and attempting to thrash him for six.
He did not bowl enough to discover if The Oval's firmer pitches really were made for his legspin. And the four-day batting that had been so diligent at the Riverside often appeared to be tentative and perhaps a little underpowered on flatter surfaces further south as he struggled to impose himself.
He collected a Championship winners' medal at Surrey to add to the one he collected in his breakthrough season at Durham in 2013 (the year Paul Collingwood shifted him from No. 8 to No. 3). But a first-class average for Surrey of 31.26 with four centuries tells its own story, as does the fact that he took only 25 of his 343 professional wickets for them.
"I've got the same squad number, the same spot in the dressing room and wear the same county cap. But there is different management and board members - [the club] looks the same on the surface but it's completely different."
By the time he approached Alec Stewart, Surrey's director of cricket, in the middle of last season to say he was eager to return north, the decision to release him from his contract a year early made sense for both parties.
"When I went down to Surrey that was [for] a cricketing reason - getting the chance to perform at the Oval as a batter who bowls legspin," he said. "It was the right decision for cricketing reasons and four years later to move back is exactly the same. I still feel that at 30, I have got my best cricket ahead of me.
"From a cricketing point of view, it probably didn't go to plan in the first season. Maybe I was trying too hard, and I didn't bowl as much I would have liked. I settled in quite nicely in the second season and was playing really well until I broke my wrist.
"It was just one of those things. It definitely didn't go as well as I wanted but nothing to do with lack of effort, I got on well with everyone and I really enjoyed the London lifestyle. It was an exciting and pretty cool place to live. But as soon as it was on the cards that Durham were interested it was a no-brainer for me. I said to Alec that a return to Durham really excited me. I had another year left on my contract but Surrey were fantastic about it."
He shared a dressing room with some influential captains, led by Kumar Sangakkara. "With Kumar it was about how calm and chilled he was. He never let things affect him. It was the same with Rory Burns. He wasn't somebody who shouted and screamed. He got his message across calmly.
"Then there was Gareth Batty. His style was very different: he was a shouter and screamer, a very passionate bloke. I think as a captain I'll probably be leaning more towards the Sangakkara way. I'm full of energy and always try to play with a smile on my face so hopefully the lads will follow suit."
Loyalty to the North-East cause is central to his message. "The North-East is a special place," he asserted. "People who leave generally come back. We're those type of people. We're passionate about the North-East and passionate about Durham as well. I came through the ranks from the Under-11s. There are a bunch of lads in the squad who have done the same. It's a club that needs to be playing Division One cricket."
Borthwick back north this year; the Lindisfarne Chronicles next. By the time the priceless Anglo-Saxon manuscript returns for three months at the end of next summer, he hopes to have made an impact with his own form of cricketing evangelism.
He joins two combative seam-bowling allrounders in Ben Raine and Paul Coughlin as recent homegrown Durham players to return to the fold as the county's instincts to trust in their own once again come to the fore. Only Yorkshire have a bigger reputation for homegrown loyalties, but their recent acquisitions of Dom Bess and Dawid Malan suggest that Durham's commitment might now surpass them.
Durham, famously, were both financially rescued from impending bankruptcy in 2016 and royally punished for the privilege by the ECB which imposed relegation, points deductions and a salary cap. Borthwick was part of a sizeable exodus.
They were not the only county club mired in debt - indeed, their debts were less than half those of Yorkshire - but they lacked a financial saviour, so the ECB reluctantly provided a short-term loan of £1.35m, turned them into a community interest company, renegotiated their debts with Durham County Council, and forced the departure of the chairman, Clive Leach, who had a thing about foreign ownership.
Now Borthwick is returning to a club that is regenerating. "It looks the same on the surface but it's completely different," he said. "I've got the same squad number, the same spot in the dressing room and wear the same county cap. But there is different management and board members. It's an exciting time to be involved.
"I was lucky enough to play with some very talented cricketers coming through the ranks at Durham. I'm back here now eager to play the best cricket I've ever played. Now I have got the captain's armband I might have to bowl some more. I still class myself as an allrounder. I have over 200 first-class wickets. It's definitely still in there."

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps