Riverside ready to impress on Test debut

In 1993 the Riverside in Chester-le-Street was an open sportsfield sitting on the banks of the River Wear. Overlooked by a golf course and the stately Lumley Castle its acres were dominated by football and rugby pitches. Tomorrow at 10.45am, when England take on Zimbabwe in the second Test this fine example of what a modern cricket arena should look like will become the eighth ground in England and the 87th in the world to host Test match cricket.

In 1993 the Riverside in Chester-le-Street was an open sportsfield sitting on the banks of the River Wear. Overlooked by a golf course and the stately Lumley Castle its acres were dominated by football and rugby pitches. Tomorrow at 10.45am, when England take on Zimbabwe in the second Test this fine example of what a modern cricket arena should look like will become the eighth ground in England and the 87th in the world to host Test match cricket.

The transformation of these fields, belonging to the Chester-le-Street council, into a 12,000-seat stadium during the last 10 years is remarkable. As is the achievement of Durham County Cricket Club who will become the first new county to host a Test match since 1902.

Although Newcastle United use some of the on-site facilities for training, the Riverside is principally the home of Durham County Cricket Club. Formed in 1882 Durham played cricket as a minor county for 109 years before they were granted first-class status by the then Test and County Cricket Board on 6 December 1991.

One of the driving forces behind this move was Matthew Roseberry, the father of the former Middlesex and Durham cricketer Michael, and a successful businessman in the North-east. Explaining the reason why Durham applied to become the 19th first-class county in March 1989, Roseberry said: "As a minor county we had a successful side but we were producing lots of talented young cricketers like Michael, Ian Smith and Graeme Welch and losing them to other counties. Myself and John Hampshire, [the former England batsman] who was coaching at the indoor school here, got fed up with this and thought let's have a first-class side."

Convincing other members of the Durham committee and several of the seasoned players proved to be harder than imagined, as did finding the £500,000 the county needed to show they could survive if their application was successful. Fortunately for Durham, Scottish and Newcastle Breweries came up with the goods and underwrote the application.

Several grounds were considered as Durham's eventual home but planning permission was not granted until Malcolm Pratt, the leader of Chester-le-Street council, was approached about the Riverside site in 1993. The inspiration for using this venue came from the County Ground, Worcester. Roseberry and others felt the vista of Lumley Castle would compare to the Worcester Cathedral, which overlooks the New Road ground. Being a mile off the A1(M), seven miles from Sunderland and Newcastle and five miles from Durham, made the ground an accessible location.

Pratt, now the president of Durham, came back in two days with a positive decision and plans were made. The ground has been built in stages. The first, which included the setting up of the playing surface and initial stands, cost £12m. Durham's first first-class fixture was in May 1995 and last winter a new 2,000-seat stand was completed but the building of a Health and Fitness club is still taking place. Unfortunately it is something of an eyesore.

Such investment off the field has come at a cost to the playing side of the club according to the Durham fast bowler Stephen Harmison, who will play for England tomorrow. Currently in the Second Division of both domestic competitions and without a trophy in 11 years, Durham have found it hard to live with their seasoned rivals. "Durham as a county has gone on the back burner," said Harmison speaking of the club's reluctance to sign any big name players since the departure of Ian Botham in 1993. "The club probably feel it is a sacrifice well made but you haven't got to forget what the bread and butter is. Hopefully we can push on as a county and go on from strength to strength."

Despite its beautiful surroundings the Riverside was not a happy place to bat during its early years. While the pitch settled, broken fingers were of a more regular occurrence than hundreds. With time the pitch has improved and it is now bowlers that dread attending the North-east.

The ground has staged several one-day internationals as well as World Cup matches since 1999 but holding a Test match does not signify the end of Durham's ambition. The desire is eventually to have an arena capable off holding 20,000 and even against Zimbabwe, a side not noted for bringing the crowds in, ticket sales for the first three days are good, with a sell-out expected on Saturday.

It will not be long before the Rose Bowl in Southampton gains similar status. Old Trafford and Headingley, grounds that have hosted Test matches since the 1800's but in desperate need of a face lift, better watch out.

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