Boon teaching Durham the Tasmanian way

Derek Pringle meets the new messiah of Chester-le-Street and finds a man well versed in the problems he and his team face over the coming months
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These days, siding with the underdog is a dying vocation and about as fashionable as following 10 pints of ale with a red hot vindaloo. Everyone, it seems, likes a winner, which makes it all the more curious why someone as successful as David Boon, the recently retired Ayers Rock of Australian cricket, should want to come and captain Durham County Cricket Club, a win-free zone for the whole of last season bar a single victory in the Sunday League.

The challenge facing Boon is about as great as it gets, though leading Assam to victory in India's Ranji Trophy would run it close.

Morale in the North-east is not high and Boon must rekindle the enthusiasm of a team that has suffered numerous indignities, not least the high price to be paid for being on the margin, where over-inflated salaries have been paid to a host of rapidly deflating players: a situation of high investment and zero return that is close to bringing cricket lovers in Tony Blairland to crisis point.

Being a Tasmanian probably helps. Certainly the island triangle that hangs from Australia's underbelly has always had to overcome an inferiority complex where the rest of the country is involved.

"There are a lot of similarities between Durham and what Tassie was like six or seven years ago," says Boon, idly fingering his diamond earstud as he and the rest of Durham's middle order watch the openers give the students of Oxford University the runaround.

"So when Geoff Cook [Durham's director of cricket] flew out to have a chat about what had been happening, I really had no hesitation in coming. I saw it as a good challenge as well as something to keep me motivated. Now I'm here I can definitely feel the change of attitude and direction we made back there. Hopefully that experience can help Durham.

"I like to look at last season in a positive light in that the only way for us to go is up. That begins with attitude and I want us to go out there and feel we can win. Not just to turn up and expect to lose."

He says that Durham already feels like home and that his wife Pip and their three children are all excited by the move. Mind you, one thing that may not prove quite so homely is the square at Chester-le-Street. Unlike Boon's home track at the Bellerive Oval in Hobart - a batsman-friendly surface the Australian leg-spinner Kerry O'Keefe once called the Autobahn - the pitches at Durham's splendid HQ are as spiteful as they come.

Short of dousing the fruity wickets with Agent Orange, however, he has been given more or less a free rein to mould the team to his requirements but admits it will take a little time before he knows the players well enough to realise what his best options are.

"As soon as I can remember all the names, my job is to improve the team's performance between the hours of 11 and six. To do that I hope to create a good team atmosphere that breeds confident and positive players. I've only been here a few days, but from what I've seen, everyone is just as keen to do well and try and turn things around."

Like Allan Border, the stolid give-no-quarter captain Boon most resembles as a player, a stint in county cricket has always been something he wanted to experience.

"No matter how far down a certain road you've gone, you can always learn more. The experience of coming over here, especially during Ashes tours, was a real bonus and whetted my appetite. To play in different conditions and have to adapt your game to them is one of the great joys of the game.

"I almost played for Gloucestershire, but one of my knees needed a bit of a clean-up after a tour of Pakistan. I also got about two inches from signing for Warwickshire in 1994. But at the last minute Dermot Reeve decided they wanted a bowler to replace Allan Donald. When that fell through they approached me again. By then it was too late so they signed Brian Lara, which worked out well for them." The twinkling eyes betraying the ironic humour hidden by the deadpan delivery.

He feels that county cricket is on the right path now that four-day cricket is the norm. "Before the change it was a bit slapdash and relied on falsely set-up declarations, unlike Shield cricket in Australia, where every day in the 10-match season really counts. Now that you've got four days at 110 overs a day, it allows you to play the game properly."

For his country, Boon was "Mr Dependable," a batsman who sold his wicket dear and kept his advice cheap, attributes Durham will be hoping rub off on their inconsistent batsmen. With his junior Merv Hughes moustache, he looks like a polar explorer, though a reputation for a mighty thirst - he is reputed to have beaten Rod Marsh's liver wrenching 42-can record for beers sunk on the Sydney to London flight - means it is more likely to be lager spume on his bristles than frost.

Having scored 7,442 runs in 107 Tests for Australia, Boon, before his retirement last year, had managed to climb the game's Mount Olympus without anyone really noticing. The method and the man are distinctly similar and I remember Allan Border once describing him as a man of few words who, when he did open his mouth, immediately had the ears of all those around him.

"In Australia, the dressing-room is very much an open forum. Everybody has as much right to say something as anybody else, irrespective of who they are or what they've done. That way everyone feels comfortable when they walk in, and that they belong there. It's much easier to perform when you're in an environment where people clearly believe in you."

It was not always like that though, and before taking the 1987 World Cup, Australia had not won so much as a chook (chicken) raffle in four years; a situation made worse by having lost successive Ashes series to a dominant England.

"I believe talent goes in circles. When I first started England was on top and we were the ones getting our butts kicked. Over a 12-year period that's been turned round and England seem to be where we were in 1985."

However, apart from the unquestioning motivation that the beloved "Green Baggy" (Australia's distinctive Test cap) has over men of all ages, Boon believes it was the Aussie selectors who broke the mould and laid the foundations for the successes of the last 10 years.

"They decided to pick from an unofficial squad of about 16 guys and give them as much opportunity as possible over a two-year period. To know that someone was going to stick with you even if you failed gave us all a lot of confidence."

There were other factors and Aussie cricketers of the Eighties were said to suffer from Botham phobia, and when he waned, Australia's prospects waxed. It is a syndrome many feel Shane Warne is about to inflict upon England's batsmen, who have rarely coped well with high quality leg-spinners.

"It's possible, but what you've got to look at is that Warney's the best leggie going around. The beauty about him is that he can create pressure as well as take wickets. To go for only two and a half runs per over in Test cricket is phenomenal."

What advice, if any, does he give the Tasmanian batsmen when they take on Victoria and Warne's tweaking them like a buzzsaw?

He pauses, as if to weigh up whether or not to give anything away to the old enemy, but decides to anyway. "We all know that Shane's a "dry" bowler [an expression that means he bowls very few bad balls]. That means you really have to concentrate, not only to keep him out, but to make sure that when that loose delivery does come, you put the thing away."

Mind you, he feels the pacemen Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie give Australia's attack a useful edge. "Glenn's sharp, he's got good control and will bowl all day. He's actually got a strike rate as good as Warney's," he says with an ever so slight bit of menace.

So what does he think the Ashes has in store for Michael Atherton's men, now that they are taking on a de-Booned Australian side?

"I thought there were a lot of signs of improvement in New Zealand. Also the move to appoint Atherton for the whole summer is a positive one. It's important to give a team signals like that. When Australia were struggling and rebuilding in the mid-1980's, faith and stability were important factors.

"Of course I'll have to go for our blokes, but if England can go through the summer using a minimal squad, instead of the 30 or so players that have been called up during the previous two Ashes campaigns, I think it'll be a lot closer than many have been predicting."