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Ryan Campbell sets out lofty ambitions for Durham

A year after cardiac arrest that left him in a coma, coach embraces Championship challenge

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
Ryan Campbell, Netherlands coach for more than five years, is a true cricket nomad  •  Sportsfile via Getty Images

Ryan Campbell, Netherlands coach for more than five years, is a true cricket nomad  •  Sportsfile via Getty Images

"For a Perth boy, the facts are everywhere else is cold." Ryan Campbell has been taking a tour around the boundary at Hove, with his Durham side striving for breakthroughs in their Championship match against Sussex. It is, by recent standards, a beautifully sunny spring day, but Campbell is well wrapped up as he leans on an advertising board and discusses how he ended up at English cricket's most northerly outpost.
A Western Australian, capped twice by his country, who represented Hong Kong at the age of 44 before going on to coach Netherlands for more than five years, Campbell is one of cricket's great nomads. He is also a great survivor, in the most literal sense - 12 months ago, while in the UK with his family, he suffered a cardiac arrest that left him in an induced coma with a 7% chance of pulling through.
Remarkably, Campbell recovered in time to play a role in Netherlands' T20 World Cup campaign in Australia late last year - a point he had previously identified as the "perfect way to finish" his Dutch adventure. It wasn't long before he was on the move again, taking on the job of Durham head coach and pronouncing himself fit for the stresses and strains of life on the county beat.
"My health is really good," he tells ESPNcricinfo with a smile. "It's quite bizarre really, next Sunday is the anniversary of it, one year, which has gone pretty fast to be honest. Few changes, left the Netherlands, coming here. But the main thing is I'm still here to tell the tale. My health is good, my family - the kids are going well, my wife obviously. So really looking forward to this next challenge."
The challenge in question, that of resurrecting Durham, was offered to Campbell by another Australian and former WA team-mate, Marcus North, who is now the club's director of cricket. Durham have been stuck in Division Two since their summary demotion by the ECB in 2016, as punishment for requiring a financial bailout; although there have been signs of improvement, they finished a disappointing sixth in 2022, leading to James Franklin's departure after three seasons in charge.
"I've always loved county cricket," Campbell says. "I've always wanted to be a part of county cricket. The opportunity arose, Durham came a-knocking so to speak, and I just thought it was gonna be a great challenge. Looking at the squad, I think there's lots of talent and, of course, I played most of my career with Marcus North, so we have a good relationship. And I felt we're on the same page with where we want to take this team so there wasn't a lot of hesitation."
Campbell had been due to work with Durham during the Royal London Cup in 2020, taking some time away from Netherlands, before Covid threw the world off course - but he kept an eye on their fortunes. "I felt that they were going in a really good direction and last year, obviously they didn't play as well as they could have - but in saying that they didn't lose a lot of games in the Championship, they drew a lot [eight out of 14 games]. So what do you do? Okay, you change a few things. Can I bring a bit of more my style to the team and give them a bit of freedom?"
Coincidentally, "freedom" is the new zeitgeist for red-ball cricket in England - and so it was that Durham began the LV= Insurance Championship season by barrelling along to a score of 352 for 7 from 70 overs on a rain-affected opening day on the south coast. It seems a neat fit that Campbell's Durham embrace Bazball - "people are going to call it whatever they want to call it" - so wholeheartedly given that they are also the home of Ben Stokes, the man who alongside Brendon McCullum has overseen England's dramatic Test reboot.
"I'll be honest, I want to us to be the best team in England."
Ryan Campbell wants big things for Durham
Like Stokes and McCullum, Campbell says the thinking behind such an aggressive approach is simple: how to best take 20 wickets in order to win the game. "That takes time," he says. "So I reckon the batters need to get on with it and give our bowlers enough time."
In the end, Durham's second-innings collapse proved more significant in determining the result at Hove, but the logic remains the same.
"We need to create an opportunity for our bowlers to get those wickets and I think [day one] was a bit of a reflection of that. We lost 20 overs of the game but we felt by stumps, we'd kind of made those up with the way we played. Even looking at the way Sussex's openers went about it to start, you can see there's a clear way people want to go. I think county cricket is going to be in for some great viewing this year. If I was a spectator I think it'd be well worth watching because it sounds like there's a few teams pretty keen to get on with it."
Campbell had even floated the idea in the dressing room of declaring on the first evening, in order to steal a march on Sussex - a move reminiscent of Stokes engineering the day-night Test against New Zealand in Mount Mauganui to England's advantage by ensuring the home side twice had to bat under lights.
"All I keep saying to the guys is what do we have to do to win this game? So if that means we break the mould and declare before stumps on the first day because we feel that their openers don't want to bat for those last three or four overs. We weigh that up with 20 or 30 [extra runs]. Is that important? That's the only thing I'm asking the players, to ask questions. Don't just accept that's the way everyone does it.
"I watch lots of county cricket and you look at these massive scores and you think to yourself, well, that's great, but that's only one way you can win the game now. And if it doesn't go your way, then it's a draw. I'm not convinced that's the way forward. At the end of the day 16 points [for a win] is a lot, five for a draw isn't. I know there's bonus points and all that sort of stuff, but for me 16 points is the most important thing and how can we go about it?"
Campbell was involved on the Zoom call during the offseason on which Stokes and McCullum put across their blueprint for the game to the counties and, as a similarly attacking batter during his playing days, needed little convincing. Despite his background, learning the trade at a time in when Australia were at their domineering best, he is happy to credit England with providing the "spark" that the first-class game needed.
"It was refreshing to hear, but it wasn't any rocket science," he says. "I think my job as a coach is to give players a good environment and the freedom to be them. But at the end of day, especially the longer form of game has been crying out for a spark. And I think that's what England have done and it hurts me to say, because obviously I'm a proud Aussie, but I think what England have done is made it to a point where people are interested in the game again. Just look around here. There's people coming in to watch, to have a look. And I think there's a real feeling and buzz of excitement about what's going on."
That buzz extends to the anticipation of this summer's Ashes, with Campbell uncertain for the first time about whether he should back his countrymen. "I know Australia will be sitting there going, they cannot bat like that against our bowling attack," he says. "But I know England will be sitting there going, 'Yes, we can, and we're gonna try.' That's gonna be the interesting factor, can they stand up to one of the best attacks in the world."
Back with Durham, and despite defeat in the opening round, the season lies ahead waiting to be discovered. North may have brought in Campbell with the goal of achieving promotion in the Championship but, fittingly for a man who has seen a fair bit of the world, his ambitions are more far-reaching.
"I'll be honest, I want to us to be the best team in England. And to do that, it might take a while, but to be the best team in England, along the way I think you're gonna win a few things. I hate to say 'We've gotta get promoted', because you're fixated on the wrong things. I know I'm sounding a bit like a coach, with the old cliches, but if we can get the right things in place, players playing the right way our academy producing the players - and our academy's been brilliant - then I think we're on the right track.
"We'll get to where we get to - and if we just fall a bit short, we're still going to be a bloody good club. And to me that's the important part. Durham is a massive part of England, the northeast are craving for it to be a really good team. Hopefully that's what I can produce."

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick