Cricket: Vision and vigour create a venue fit for the highest level: Jon Culley witnesses the first balls bowled as Durham show off their new ground

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The Independent Online
AT 11am yesterday, at the foot of a 14th century castle, a 20th century dream was realised. Franklyn Rose, a Jamaican fast bowler on trial with Durham, sent down his opening delivery to Jason Pooley, the Middlesex captain, and the history of cricket at the Riverside ground at Chester-le-Street began.

Yesterday, these two young men were playing for their counties' second XIs. Will they one day re- enact the sequence in a Test match on the same field, for the West Indies against England? A fanciful notion, perhaps. But if it is not the destiny of Rose and Pooley to represent their countries where Lumley Castle overlooks the Wear, then others will do so.

For Test cricket is a dream and has been since the contractors' vehicles rolled on to the site on 6 May 1992 to set up their fences and Portakabins and begin the process of levelling the ground where cricket's newest first-class county would establish their eventual home.

To have progressed from that point to the staging of a second XI match within 26 months is remarkable enough. But it is only the start. By the spring of 1997, when the last of the hard-hats has left, an imposing pavilion will extend in a great sweep of turretted grandstands around one side of the ground, looking out toward the castle, with open seating skirting the remainder. A stadium to house 22,000 spectators will be complete.

The final cost is expected to be around pounds 15m, a considerable sum even in boom years, never mind in the wake of a recession which the north-east has felt as harshly as any region. But it is being met, stage by careful stage, because men of vision and vigour have harnessed a passion for cricket that has surprised even themselves.

Men such as Don Robson, a businessman and local Labour politician, who is Durham's chairman, and Alan Wright, his resourceful chief executive: 'I've been amazed by the public's response.' A membership of 6,000 testifies to that, raising the thought that a substantial cricket audience must have been waiting to be mobilised long before Durham's first-class debut 28 months ago.

But it needed a catalyst, and like- minded people to combine energy and resources. For Robson, the spur came five years ago, when nine boys from County Durham signed for first-class counties in the same year.

The development of Riverside is the natural consequence, a product not of the reckless pursuit of the far- fetched, as some sceptics imagined when Robson first floated his vision of a new Test ground, but of meticulous planning. Each phase of the work has been costed individually, balancing commercial potential with support from local government and business, and grants from Europe.

'We sold nine executive boxes at pounds 125,000 each and more than 100 debenture seats at pounds 2,500,' Robson said. 'The first module is costing pounds 32.8m, but of that we have borrowed only pounds 600,000. And one of our sponsors is the Co-operative Bank, so we have it at the base rate.'

If the day was an emotional one for Robson, it was doubly so for Tom Flintoft, the groundsman charged with a task no one else has undertaken this century - to create a surface fit for first-class cricket entirely from scratch. He, above all, has to get everything right, and his nerves were not helped when Middlesex, having chosen to bat, lost both openers in the first four overs.

'I was apprehensive,' he said, 'but I think the early wickets can be put down to the new ball being banged in, as much as anything.' Flintoft had been on the ground four hours before play started, fine- tuning his pitch as best he could. 'I'm satisfied with how it has behaved. The bounce was a little bit variable, but this is just a test. I've learned a lot just today.'

Born into farm life on the hills above Whitby 60 years ago, Flintoft became a groundsman by chance, taking a part-time job with a club in Middlesbrough when times were hard, solely to boost his income.

But he acquired the necessary skills quickly, moving first to nearby Acklam Park, a Yorkshire ground, then to Southampton, where he was groundsman of the year in 1990, before being lured back to the north.

Harry Brind dropped by to give Flintoft's work his approval yesterday and will do so again before Durham play first-class games at Riverside next summer, when the schedule includes a visit by the West Indians.

But already they are looking further ahead with whetted appetites. A World Cup match at Riverside in 1999 is being talked about, a Test perhaps the year after that. An addition to the list of six grounds currently used for Test cricket: now there's a day to dream of.