Durham's county championship debut, 1993

A canny first season

Durham began their first season as a first-class county with a bang and ended it with a whimper. In between, the experience was rather like a novice's round of golf - some booming early drives and the odd good hole but plenty of double bogeys. By September, injuries to key batsmen and a lack of really incisive bowlers relegated the team to bottom place in the Championship, and there they finished. There was plenty to be proud of, though.

We are supposed to live in John Major's classless society, so he would have been pleased that for much of the season a team managed by a Cook also contained a Jones, a Smith and a Brown. Durham was a magnet for players from all corners of the country, many disillusioned with their previous counties after years trudging the same path. At first, the public school accents of some recruits jarred uneasily against the Potteries jargon and north-eastern lingo of others, but the humour and goodwill of everyone proved the catalyst. What the team lacked in pace bowling and depth, it adequately made up for with determination and charisma. It could not, however, replace Dean Jones's expertise and panache once he departed for Australia in late July.

Well as men like Larkins, Parker and Bainbridge played, they were unable to mask the overall inexperience of the team and, as injuries took their toll, the youthful Durham aspirants were cruelly exposed. Geoff Cook himself observes in his book, The Narrow Line: Nothing in cricket even begins to compare with the intense psychological rupture involved in moving from a county second eleven to the first eleven. The gulf in standards is far wider than anything they have had to cross in the past, or will in the future; even the climb to Test cricket is less precipitous. This meant that new names like Mark Briers and Stewart Hutton were suddenly thrust into the front line and, after promising beginnings, found the sheer intensity of full-time professionalism too onerous, and the spindly body of the left-arm seamer Simon Brown eventually buckled under the strain of endless days in the field. John Wood and Paul Henderson would not yet have played any first-team cricket in more established squads. All are well ahead of schedule in their own careers, as is the 18-year-old Jimmy Daley, who recorded two accomplished eighties in the last week of the season.

The remarkable thing about Durham cricket is the indomitable support. It is a common misconception that the area is typified by reclaimed slag heaps upon which people live in poky houses and eat pease pudding for tea. In fact, the county is characterised by stupendous views and a loyal, optimistic population. They soon idolised favourite members of the team, and revelled in the new identity. Importantly, the team won its first competitive game - a nailbiting Sunday encounter against Lancashire- giving it immediate credibility. There were two Championship victories to follow - one by an innings - and a mid-table position in the Sunday League. Losing to Leicestershire in the quarter-finals of the NatWest was easily the low point of the season.

The problems of setting up a new county are manifold. How would the various club wickets stand up to four-day cricket? What size might the

crowds be? How many toilets would need to be installed? Many of the logistics had to be judged on a trial and error basis, and one or two home matches were lost through unfamiliarity with the pitch. Volunteers were lured to help erect marquees or drag hoardings about, and there was a touching family atmosphere about the whole venture. This effectively eliminated any barriers there might have been between players and supporters, adding to the refreshing informality of the grounds themselves. Teams and administrators mingled happily together at lunchtimes, and everywhere there were special welcomes and receptions.

The extent of regional interest in the new adventure was emphasised by eight-page pull-outs in local newspapers, grounds crawling with TV crews and a membership closed at 6,500 in early July. The county has a vast hinterland, stretching from Middlesbrough to Sunderland and from the industrial Teesside coast right across the Pennines. The players' problem was never going to be attracting spectators to the grounds but finding their own way to them. Within a complex network of wide roads various individuals became lost en route to one of the less familiar clubs like Jesmond, Hartlepool or Gateshead Fell.

Behind the scenes, Durham were quick to avoid the cumbersome infrastructure that has so stifled the advance of the county game. Instead of delegating responsibility to a catalogue of committees, Durham established a limited company controlled by a board of directors. Thankfully, the board did not meddle with team selection, which was exclusively the domain of Cook and David Graveney. Floodlit matches were organised, and leading players like Botham and Jones placed at the disposal of clubs and businesses. And when the new stadium at Chester-le-Street is completed in 1995, Durham will be endowed with the best facilities in the land.

For the participants, the County Championship had become a treadmill, as teams of weary players lurched from one venue to the next along well-worn tracks. Playing for Durham was more like an expedition, taking unfamiliar routes, touring new areas of cricketing enthusiasm. Everywhere there were fresh and not always pleasant discoveries - the biting wind off the moors at Gateshead Fell, the thieves at the Racecourse, Chester-le-Street's shirtfront wicket, the perilous scorers' crow's nest in Stockton's pavilion. At Hartlepool the backdrop of industrial effluent and petrochemical plants contrasted drastically with the leafy ambience of the ground.

There were players' habits and methods to evaluate too. Paul Parker liked a rigorous pre-match net, while Wayne Larkins preferred to disappear into a corner of the dressing-room in a cloud of nicotine; this seemed to happen less when the match was not sponsored by Benson and Hedges. Some batsmen paced about anxiously if they were due in next, others had to be disturbed from a post-lunch snooze. The wicket-keeper Andy Fothergill had no idea how far back to stand when Botham was bowling. As a convenient departure from the norm, no unnecessary demands were made on the playing staff - they were required to report only an hour before the start rather than be forced to idle away hours completing crosswords, as most sides do.

This particularly appeased Botham- not what you could call an early morning sort of person - and, until injuries materialised, his name on the team sheet provided the ideal launching pad. Not only was his reputation still intact on the field but his mere presence lured an extra throng through the turnstiles. So, even at the end of the season when the team had not won a match for a month, home Sunday games were sold out, and there were ample crowds even on a wet Thursday in Darlington.

The first Championship win, at Cardiff, and the elimination of Middlesex from the NatWest represented the highlights of the season. Both were wholehearted team efforts and decisive victories. Glamorgan were beaten by an innings as first Larkins and Jones then Parker battered the bowling into submission on an unreliable wicket, which was then wickedly exploited by Brown with the new ball. Larkins's innings were regularly entertaining but always fraught with danger; Parker was less exciting but slightly more reliable. This was illustrated in the Middlesex match when, pursuing 260 against a less than fearsome attack, Larkins mishooked in the first over and was out for a duck- it was left to Parker and a restrained Botham to engineer victory. That such a fine performance should have been squandered by inept batting in the next round at Leicester was a travesty. On that occasion, Graveney, the captain, looked as downcast as a man can be, while Cook, though dejected, pondered the future of the team, thinking of his five-year-plan like Mao-Tse-Tung.

The long journeys to away matches and the lack of success took their toll on the players, but the extraordinary enthusiasm of the Durham faithful maintained the spirit level. To the sports fanatics of the north-east mere participation in the County Championship is a revelation, and though the end results were disappointing, they were not disheartened. At the conclusion of the last match, many came on to the field to shake each player personally by the hand. Eet's been a canny first season, they said, and we canner wait for the next. With the area's record of producing pedigree players, an astute management and the foundations laid in Chester-le-Street for England's first purpose-built Test match arena, there should be plenty more for them to shout about in future. Rome wasn't built in a day, either.

Simon Hughes played for Middlesex from 1980 to 1991 before signing for Durham, where he went to university. He writes a regular summertime column for The Independent.

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