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County cricket: The north-south divide in reverse

Money-bags Surrey are bottom while little Durham are top. How come?

The 2013 County Championship was hardly meant to be like this. Surrey, a team of stars assembled from all corners, were supposed to be heading towards their 19th title. Durham, a conglomeration of local lads speaking in the same accent, should have been destined for the depths.

Instead here we are with the competition reaching a gripping conclusion and the city slickers are fighting for their lives, the country bumpkins can smell glory. Surrey are 15 points adrift at the foot of Division One, Durham are 14.5 points clear of Yorkshire at the top, also with three games to play. Hold their nerve as they have done all season, and they will win the Championship for the third time in six years, a barely credible achievement.

Relegation would be a huge blow to Surrey's pride, perhaps more than their finances, and an indictment of their wide-ranging recruitment policy in the last five years. This summer alone three of the biggest names in world cricket have passed through the The Oval: Graeme Smith, Ricky Ponting and latterly Hashim Amla.

But beyond that they have adopted a strategy of enlisting players from other counties. When Surrey and Durham met in a Championship match a fortnight ago, Surrey's team contained Amla and five players who had enjoyed long careers at other counties while Durham's contained eight men who had come up through their ranks.

Richard Gould, Surrey's chief executive, said: "There is a wish within the club to develop our own players and there are several coming through and in the team at present.

"The tricky thing with Surrey though is that we have significant ambition and it is not good enough for us as a club to sit at the bottom of divisions and not compete just in order to have a completely homegrown squad. We need to be competing at the highest levels."

Financially, the clubs are poles apart. Surrey, commercially acute and well run, made £800,000 last year. Durham, operating in a depressed region, has been helped enormously by Durham County Council's backing. They came up with £2.6m when the club was facing a bleak future.

David Harker, the chief executive who has been instrumental in the development of the county as an international venue, said: "The political leadership sees this club as an important asset to the region." Indeed in a recent survey which asked people what was their first thought when Durham was mentioned, more than half said cricket.

If the differing fortunes are difficult to comprehend, it is also not quite as it is automatically perceived, the contrast between princes and paupers. It is Durham, not Surrey, who began this season with a penalty of 2.5 points for breaching the salary cap of £1.8m imposed by the England and Wales Cricket Board.

There were reasons for this connected with historical contracts and the uncertainty of how to reward players involved in the England system. Durham reported themselves to the ECB when they spotted what was happening.

Nothing annoys Surrey more than the allegation they simply go out and hire who they want and pay what they want. But Chris Adams, who was sacked as director of cricket in June after almost five years of trying and failing to build a Championship-winning team, made a point of acquiring experience from elsewhere.

Gould said: "Nobody looks at the other clubs to see who they have brought in over the years. I know from my time as Somerset's chief executive that we brought in a lot of players from other counties but because it's not Surrey it doesn't quite get the attention.

"People would like to display a caricature sometimes rather than getting to the hub of the matter. I think Surrey is a very easy target and therefore people will take aim and that's something that we have to be very conscious of and make sure that whatever we do, we do in the fairest, most responsible manner possible going forward."

Durham have been led this season by Paul Collingwood, perhaps their most illustrious home-grown player, whose leadership saved them from relegation last season but was not expected to do so this.

Both counties have suffered off-field dramas. Last summer Surrey were disrupted by the death of the promising batsman, Tom Maynard. Partly to prompt a fresh start, they brought in Smith as captain this season but within weeks he had to return to South Africa injured.

Durham were rocked when their director of cricket, Geoff Cook, had a heart attack. He was on the critical list for a week. The team have responded as if they were doing it for him, and Cook is now back at work. A fascinating fortnight awaits in this embodiment of the north-south divide.

Haves and have nots

Surrey made a profit of £800,000 last year.

Durham needed a £2.6m local authority grant and another £2.6m from the local enterprise partnership.

Durham have handed back two international matches because fans do not have the money to afford the tickets.

Surrey sold out three domestic Twenty20 fixtures this season as well as all five days of the Test.

Durham had no money for an overseas player this season.

Surrey have had three overseas Test stars this season.

Eleven of the 18 players Durham have used this season came through the ranks. Eight were born within 20 miles.

Apart from the three overseas players, eight of Surrey's 20 players this season played for other counties.