Riverside earns a place in history

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The Independent Online

There is a passing similarity between the staging of a Test match in Durham and the dog that sings the national anthem. The remarkable thing is not that it is done well, but that it is done at all.

Little more than a decade ago, the idea of a Test in Durham was as preposterous as the absence of coalfields. The county had always been a thriving cricketing area, but it was still a minor county.

Yet on Thursday at the Riverside in Chester-le-Street, England will play Zimbabwe in the Second Test. It has been a hard sell, but no matter how many turn up for the action, it has been some turnaround.

"We want this to be the start of things," said Durham's chief executive, David Harker. "We know that this is not the most glamorous fixture in the calendar, and one day we'd like Australia to play England in a Test here. But there is a real sense of occasion here."

A decade ago, the Riverside was still an expanse of wild grassland. Within two years it became a county cricket ground, just off the A1M but in the glorious shadow of Lumley Castle. It remains unfinished, but that will not be evident on Thursday. Temporary seating of 5,000 has raised the capacity to 12,000, and the new south terrace, with room for 2,000, will be open for the first time.

"It is all but enclosed and it will look like a sporting arena," said the facilities manager, John Hopps. The peri-meter development is low- level, so as not to block the ruggedly beautiful North-east countryside. It is easily the most rural of English international cricket grounds.

It should not follow the unfortunate example of England's last new Test ground. In 1902, England played against Australia at Bramall Lane, Sheffield, and despite the inclusion of Sydney Barnes and Wilfred Rhodes, they lost by 143 runs. Perhaps smarting at the memory, no ground has been added to the list since. Bramall Lane never staged another Test.

The Riverside certainly will, if not next year then in the one after it. There is a modernity about the place which the other northern Test grounds, Headingley and Old Trafford, cannot hope to match. The sense of history is lacking - but only for now.

But the public will not be hammering at the gates. Not even Philip Tufnell's arrival in the nearby Metro Centre will persuade them that England against Zimbabwe is the real thing. "We have to build up a relationship with the public and develop a data base," said Harker. "We also have to show that we can stage this sort of thing." Hopps added: "We've staged one-day internationals and been successful, but there is a big difference. With this you have got to tidy up, go home and be prepared for another big day the following morning."

The pitch, which was dodgy when the Riverside first staged first-class matches, should hold no alarms. The word is that it will be low and slow and favour the batsmen.

The corporate boxes and marquees, at least, are sold out. The probability is that 8,000 will turn up on each of the first two days, with a near-capacity attendance on the third day. Few tickets have been sold for Sunday's play because the match may not go that far.

There is one reason that the players will know that they have been in a Test match. The playing surface is 5.2 acres, only 0.3 acres smaller than The Oval.

The Riverside is England's eighth Test ground, and the 84th in the world. It should be singing on Thursday.