Durham ready for big time

An Ashes date on the new season’s calendar is a fitting marker of just how far cricket’s newest first-class county has come in 20 years, says Simon Turnbull

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The Independent Online

The hands on the scoreboard clock at the Riverside were dead on 11am yesterday when Charlie Wallis of Durham University ran up to the wicket from the Finchale End to bowl at Mark Stoneman.

There were 46 souls scattered around the seats of what is, to use its official name, the Emirates Durham International Cricket Ground. Even the thermals and the overcoats couldn’t keep out the biting cold – three degrees Celsius – and the bitter north-east wind as Durham welcomed the chilled fever of a historic Ashes season.

It gave a welcome glow in more ways than one to watch the opening delivery of the MCC University Game, and of a landmark summer for the English game’s outpost county, from the warmth of the Colin Milburn Suite on the second floor of the pavilion. Milburn was one of the world class cricketers who came from Durham but had to make their way in foreign fields, for both club and country.

The Burnopfield Basher, as the 18st colossus was known, would probably have given his left eye for the opportunity of pulling on an England jumper to play an Ashes Test in his home county. As it was, after nine Tests for his country, featuring big-hitting centuries against Gary Sobers’ West Indies at Lord’s and Pakistan in Karachi, he lost his left eye in a car accident in 1969. That did not prevent Milburn from playing another 24 matches for his beloved, adopted Northants.

He died in 1990 at the age of 48, two years before Durham became the 18th first class English county. Still, his name and his legend live on. One of the size 48 England jumpers that he wore with distinction can be found on display at the ground that will find itself on the Ashes map when the fourth Test comes to Chester-le-Street, eight miles from his native Burnopfield, on Friday 9 August.

It is a date that has been ringed in my own diary with as much anticipation as was 4 August last year. There was always a fair chance of that Saturday being a Super one for Britain’s athletes at the London Olympics – if not quite as super duper as a triple golden one – but Friday 9 August 2013 will be every bit as fantastic for Durham folk.

The prospect brought a twinkle to the eye of the admirable Paul Collingwood, one of the local lads who have become home-grown England stars in Durham’s two decades on the County Championship map. “I would love to have been around still playing for England, playing on my home ground in an Ashes Test,” said the veteran of three Ashes series wins. “For any player, the Ashes is the ultimate Test match, so to have it here at Durham, knowing that all the youngsters from the local clubs are going to come along and watch... it’s... it’s... Well, who would have thought that 20 years ago? It would have seemed pretty much ridiculous.”

There were more than a few who ridiculed Don Robson, the chairman, and the rest of Durham’s stalwart officials when they launched their bid to drag the club from the wilderness of the Minor Counties. Even when they made it onto the County Championship circuit, with Ian Botham and Dean Jones in tow, they were detached at the foot of the table for three of their first five seasons. When David Boon, that devilish Tasmanian batter, arrived as captain in 1997, on the back of a campaign that failed to yield a solitary win, it was suggested that Daniel Boone might have been a better choice for the improbable task of guiding Durham out of the wilderness.

And yet there was Boon, writing in the Stephen Harmison benefit year programme on sale for £5 in the club shop yesterday, reflecting on the career of a home-reared fast bowler who has won two County Championship titles as a Durham player and represented England in 63 Tests.

Like Collingwood, whose appointment as Durham captain midway through last season coincided with a vertiginous rise up the Division One table, the Ashington Express is in the international sidings now. Both Thirtysomethings sat out the action yesterday as Durham’s top order – now minus the prolific Michael Di Venuto – struggled to get to grips with the student opposition and the slow, damp conditions.

Not until Ben Stokes entered the fray, with the first innings score at 40 for three, did Durham start to hand out some first class lessons. The 21-year-old – already capped for England in one-day and Twenty20 action – smacked 111 before being caught by Ivo Hobson off the bowling of Rory Cox. It was the kind of response Geoff Cook, Durham’s long-serving guiding light, would have been hoping for following Stokes’ omission from the England Performance squad this week in the wake of the disciplinary trouble that led to the all-rounder’s exit from the England Lions team in February.

By just after tea, Durham were 317 for six with Phil Mustard unbeaten on 52. It was turning into a satisfactory enough first day at the seasonal office for Cook, the former England batsman who was born in Middlesbrough – in disputed Yorkshire / Durham territory – but, like Colin Milburn, made his name as a Northants player.

Cook was in at the start of the first- class Durham project, initially as director of cricket, now as coach. He has played a key role in the rise to Ashes status, not least in developing a production line of local talent from which first class England players such as Collingwood, Harmison and Graham Onions have emerged.

“In the 20 years that the club has been going, it’s achieved an unbelievable amount of things – in terms of creating the ground and giving international opportunities to young cricketers,” Cook reflected. “In recent seasons we’ve also had a successful team. The Ashes Test, I think, is an accumulation of all of those things. You don’t get any better than that in cricket.”

Those of us with golden tickets for the Riverside on 9 August would not disagree.