"I tell you what, there's still a lot of passion for cricket in the north east," says Steve Chapman. "We have three Saturday teams, an Academy team on Sundays, a midweek/senior team, a women's team, an Under-14s girls team, two Under -15s teams, three Under-13s, three Under-11s, Under-9s softball and we're starting a women's softball team this year."
Chapman is the director of coaching at South Northumberland CC and Durham's batting coach. He knows whereof he speaks. And another manifestation of commitment will be seen on Tuesday when South North hosts Durham's Royal London Cup match against Lancashire. The ground can be found at the end of Roseworth Terrace and the two ends are named Grove and Park. This is no exercise in pastoral irony. The club's home is in Gosforth, one of Newcastle's more prosperous and most blossomed suburbs. Until he was made Durham's director of cricket last year Marcus North was chief-executive at South North, whose first-teams have won five national competitions since 2006. The club has a powerful claim to be the strongest in the country.
But the immediate validity of that claim will be tested in less than a fortnight when South North meet one of their great rivals, Chester-le-Street, in the next round of the Royal London Club Championship. The Durham club's Ropery Lane home is a few hundred yards from the Riverside and its players are also well used to September's great stages, when trophies beyond the ambition of most recreational cricketers are handed out.
There is a legacy of the mining villages each having a football team and a cricket team and largely those clubs are still the focus of the communityJohn Windows, Durham academy manager
Yet when debates take place about the strongest club cricket in England how many people mention the north east of England? And how many of those are aware that while South North and Chester may currently be at the apex of the pyramid, there are a host of other clubs, some relatively small, who sustain the game in an area usually associated with the mania of its football supporters?
"It's a strong community," says John Windows, the manager of Durham's academy and a former Northumberland player. "There is a legacy of the mining villages each having a football team and a cricket team and largely those clubs are still the focus of the community. The pits have gone, the banks have closed but the clubs are still there and I think cricket in the north east is based in them. There are a lot of small clubs that give more opportunities to youngsters than might be the case elsewhere in the country. Durham's been fortunate to reap the rewards of that talent and that system."
England, too, of course. Both Steve Harmison and Mark Wood learned their cricket at Ashington while a young Paul Collingwood quickly established his second home at Shotley Bridge. "I think it's the biggest factor," he said when asked by Stuart Rayner to identify what part league cricket played in the success of Durham's academy. "My life was at Shotley Bridge…literally seven days a week. I'd come home from school, put down my bags and walk to Shotley, whether to help my dad on the roller, or to get into the nets."
Rayner's fine recent book Five Trophies and a Funeral painstakingly chronicles the building and rebuilding of Durham following their "rescue" by the ECB in 2016, It is littered with mentions of local clubs in the north east where Durham's many home-grown cricketers learned their skills. However, this is not to say there is no distinction between Northumberland and Durham. Such carelessness could endanger one's health in an area renowned for its deep allegiances. After all, Northumberland remains, in cricketing terms, a minor, although soon to be "national", county as part of an ECB revamp, and when presented with a choice between representing their club in a national competition or their county, most players choose the former.
"Wearing my Northumberland hat, I think we would have the right to say that if you decline to play for the minor county, you aren't allowed to play for your club side," says Gordon Halliday, who manages to combine being secretary of South North with chairmanship of Northumberland. "But in practice we've never enforced that. We encourage clubs to release their players and some are better at it than others. In two weeks' time South North are playing Chester-le-Street, and I would expect that two lads won't be available for Northumberland's game against Cheshire. We do have some clubs whose main priority is to win national competitions."
It is not difficult to recognise South Northumberland as one the relatively limited number of sides in England who enter national competitions with a realistic chance of winning them. Roseworth Terrace boasts a five-lane indoor school which would be the envy of some counties. Chapman attests that over 30 clubs use the facility each winter and points out that the site effectively houses two businesses: the cricket club and the cricket centre. And he is quick to deny any suggestion that any players disrespect minor counties cricket.
"South North, like every Northumberland club, is proud of the minor county and we try to support them as much as possible," he said. "We are unique in the facilities we can offer and we extend the county as much respect and courtesy as we can. We look up to the county rather than look down on it."
Perhaps it is also fair to say that some clubs in the north east also look up to South North. Chapman, who was born in Crook, County Durham, identifies it as the establishment club, although its status has been earned by excellence rather than privilege. "We have four or five lads in our first team that would walk into North East Premier League first teams but they like to play at South North, they like what the club's about," he says. "It's a bit old school because people think I'll play in the second team and if I'm good enough for the first team, I'll get picked for it."
Of course, it might be argued that old school is out of fashion and that changing leisure habits mean it's less easy for captains of, say, third teams to put out competitive sides. The north east is not immune from those pressures but one is still impressed by the vibrancy of the club game in this area. And it is not absurd to think that when Roseworth Terrace welcomes Lancashire's cricketers, the game will, in its way, symbolise the strength of cricket in a region paid too little attention by national media.
That strength has a rich heritage; Halliday does not need too much prompting to talk of the era when Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop played for Tynedale. But the introduction of Premier Leagues has helped clubs in the north east to compete with the best that London, Yorkshire and the rest can put out. And if you want to be reassured that Durham will complete its recovery from the great duffing-up of 2016, you might do worse than visit Ashington, Hetton Lyons, Shotley Bridge. Or there is Gateshead Fell, Sacriston, Blaydon, Benwell Hill, Percy Main, Boldon. The collieries once associated with one or two of these places are gone but the cricket clubs remain. Their survival is a cause for celebration as we greet another glad season.
Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications