Cricket: Thrills and Boon for anti-heroes

Stephen Brenkley looks at the county entering unchartered territory on Wednesday
Click to follow
ON Wednesday morning, Durham's cricketers will undergo an utterly unfamiliar experience. Instead of enjoying a day off, as has become their invariable custom and practice on the occasion of the Benson and Hedges Cup quarter-finals, they will be playing.

Throughout their short life in big-time cricket Durham have usually been in need of a ventilator to ensure the continuation of breathing. Their players should have looked for winter jobs as deckchair attendants so they could put to wider use their experience of folding.

The transformation is hardly complete as their heavy defeat Canterbury yesterday showed, but in progressing from the group stages for the first time they have revealed a hitherto concealed toughness. This has been unearthed by their Australian captain, David Boon, whose teak-hardness it perfectly reflects.

Boon is a man of few words but at the end of last season he had spotted improvements. Considering they had finished 17th in the Championship and Sunday League, were dumped in the first round of the NatWest Trophy and failed to qualify in the B and H, he was being either risibly optimistic or wonderfully perceptive. He sent his players away for the winter, not to supervise deckchairs but to work on weight and fitness, cricketing strengths and weaknesses.

Boon, as captain and controller of team affairs, works in harness with the coach, the veteran Norman Gifford. The talking at team meetings tends to be done by Boon but Gifford's role as the wily old pro who has seen everything there is to be seen in English conditions is complementary. Both build up their players and since his arrival the Australian has endeavoured constantly to fuel them with a belief in themselves. "Confidence, confidence is what it's all about," he asserts. "Get a win or two together and you'll be surprised what that does."

Confidence is, of course, the modern watchword of sportsmen and if everybody had it then it still wouldn't mean that everybody could win. But Boon has clearly instilled something. If one match and one victory can represent a change of mood it may well come to be seen someday as Durham's against Worcestershire earlier this month.

Needing 162 to win to guarantee a quarter-final place, Durham were 112 for 8 with the incoming tide about to engulf the collapsed deckchairs. The ninth wicket pair of Neil Killeen and Melvyn Betts put on an unbeaten 50 and there were still nearly 10 overs remaining when they won. In the days since the side have managed to compete without an array of senior players. Boon, vice-captain John Morris and opener Jonathan Lewis joined stalwart bowler Simon Brown on the injury list.

"That has been particularly pleasing," Gifford said. "We have changed things round and you can somehow sense it in the way that other teams approach us. They know they're going to be in for a game now. We've got a decent balance of youth and experience and I think that some of our young men could turn out to be accomplished cricketers."

That list embraces the rapidly advancing Melvyn Betts. When he was pitched in he was probably not ready for first-class cricket (a bit like Durham) but he possesses pace and movement. He gives batsmen the hurry-up and the acquisition of a touch more devil (Boon might help there) should bring him close to completion. Then there are Paul Collingwood, Neil Killeen, Steve Harmison and Michael Gough, all North-east lads, all achievers this season and testimony that their region is not only a hotbed of football.

Not all will play against Yorkshire at Headingley on Wednesday and therein lies something else which is new. Durham will be picking a team that does not pick itself, though Boon, who has broken a big toe, and Morris, whose calf muscle is torn again, may still be out. There is no assured place for the recovered Brown, one cap wonder (Ian Botham is the only other to have been picked for England while at Durham) and carrier of Durham's attack for most of their first-class existence.

"He looks like being fit but others have done well while Simon's been out," Gifford said. "If conditions are in his favour maybe he'll play." Whoever plays, the first hurdle to overcome will be to remember they have to turn up at the ground.