Cricket: Rock to steady the Riverside

Overseas and over here: Boon is bringing a touch of the Tasmanian devil to Durham.
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The Independent Online
David Boon's first memory is of attempting to launch himself into flight from the first-floor window of his family's home in Tasmania. He ended up in Launceston General Hospital. In attempting to launch Durham as a force in English cricket, Allan Border's old lieutenant has left himself vulnerable to a similarly painful experience.

England's fledgling first-class county hoped to win their wings last summer, their fifth in the top flight. Instead, they crashed to the bottom of the Championship pile without a win to soften the landing. Picking up the pieces of shattered pride and confidence, let alone dreams, promises to be a devil of a job even for a Tasmanian. It has already been suggested that Daniel Boone might have been a more appropriate choice, but Durham could hardly have found a better man for the task than David Clarence Boon.

Border, under whom he served as Australia's vice-captain, calls him: "My Rock of Gibraltar - a man for all seasons, someone you can depend on in all situations." Durham, in their particular situation, need a rock- solid leader more than anything else. And in Boon they have someone who has stood firm in the most intimidating of circumstances. Smashed in the face by a Patrick Patterson delivery in Kingston six years ago, he was stitched up without anaesthetic and carried on to make a century. "Bulldog" is another Borderism for the 36-year-old with the walrus moustache and the stone Buddha expression who is a hero in Australia and a legend in Tasmania.

Border is the only Australian to have scored more Test runs than Durham's new recruit. Boon plundered 7,422 runs in 107 Tests between 1984 and 1996. He won the International Cricketer of the Year award in 1987, the same year that he collected the man of the match prize for his part in Australia's World Cup final victory against England. And Durham's opening Championship fixture, away to Lancashire, will prompt memories of another boom-time in Boon's career. It was at Old Trafford in 1989 that he swept to the square-leg boundary to regain the Ashes for Australia on English soil for the first time since 1955. From Wednesday onwards, though, success will be a more relative thing for the one-time world-beater.

"I don't expect miracles and I hope nobody does," Boon said last week. "Unless you are the Divine One, they don't happen. I don't think initially our aim will be to reach for the stars. Realistically, winning some games would be progress.

"But I'd like to aim high this year - mid-table, if that is high - and maybe one or two places better next year. I'm here for two years and if, in four or five years' time, I can look at the overseas results and see that Durham are winning the Championship I will smile with satisfaction at having been a part of it." And then wake from the dream, you might add, if sarcasm did not happen to be Boon's pet-hate, and if the straight- talking Tassie had not been this kind of way before.

He needs no reminding of the days when Tasmania was regarded as more of a first-class outpost than Durham is. He made his state debut as a 17-year-old in 1978, a year after Tasmania were admitted into the Sheffield Shield on a five-matches-a-year probationary basis. Full status was not forthcoming from the Australian Cricket Board until 1982 and, even then, they endured an embarrassing spell in which they were not able to win for 44 matches. Durham start the season on a winless streak of 17 Championship games, their most recent victory having been at Nottinghamshire's expense in the final fixture of 1995.

"I think the parallels between Tasmania and Durham are very close," Boon said. "Until six or seven years ago in Tassie we were in the same kind of situation. We'd already been playing Shield cricket for a little while and we had two or three years when nothing happened. Hopefully, I'll be able to bring some of that experience to bear here."

England has been Boon's summer home before, and not just as a touring base for the three Ashes series he contested here. He played for Netherfield in the Lancashire Northern League in 1981, and even turned out for the red rose county's second XI. The post had been arranged by Jack Simmons, who nurtured Boon in his early cricketing years. When Tasmania reached Australia's Gillette Cup final, in the 1978-79 season, the Australian carried a photograph of Simmons, the captain, enjoying a celebratory beer with the 17-year-old who struck the winning run. Boon with a raised "tinnie" was to become a familiar dressing-room picture.

In fact there are 13 such shots in his autobiography; testimony not just to his legendary partiality to amber nectar (he was christened "kegs on legs" after smashing Rodney Marsh's 42-can record en route to England for the 1993 Ashes tour) but to the success he enjoyed with the Australians. It was Boon's task to lead his team-mates in the singing of their victory anthem, Under the Southern Cross. And more often than not he had something to crow about, and to drink about too.

He may look like a keg on legs but Boon earned his liquid refreshment. The Durham squad will discover as much. Boon has become more familiar with nets over the years than Ena Sharples, a diligence reflected by the sparkle of the diamond stud in his left ear (he promised to get an ear-ring if he ever scored a century against Pakistan). "I'm not against anyone having a beer," he said. "I love it, me. But timings and so on will have to be discussed." The Newcastle Brown Ale logo sat comfortably on David Boon's right breast but Durham may have to discover a taste for victory before the sponsor's stuff flows in the dressing-room.