Muted entrance as Durham's debut fails to stir North-east fans

Jon Culley
Saturday 28 September 2013 02:48

When Bill Midgley, the Durham County Cricket Club chairman, declared his ambition to stage an Ashes Test on the Riverside ground in 2005, he must have known the kind of reaction he would provoke. Any statement of ambition beyond what could be called modest is followed immediately by a volley of criticism.

It would be easy, then, to pour cold water on yesterday's historic events on the banks of the Wear. One could point out, for example, that only 9,000 spectators showed up rather than the predicted crowd of 13,000. Or that while the backdrop of Lumley Castle delights those watching from the Don Robson Pavilion, substantial parts of the ground still have the look of a building site. Or that - scandal of scandals - the ground still lacks a permanent media centre.

However, setting aside any shortcoming, Durham CCC deserves enormous credit for what they have achieved in an uncomfortable economic climate. They may be £1.8m in the red, but compared with the debt mountains in football it barely seems worth mentioning.

From an open field to a Test match venue in 10 years is some going and merited more fanfares than were audible on a low-key debut day. Cricket, as a participation sport at any rate, has a long history of popularity in the north-east and, given the proximity of three major conurbations in Newcastle, Sunderland and Durham, it is disappointing that the first new Test venue in England since 1902 did not generate greater interest.

If there were any deterrents one can include the suspicion of a mismatch after the one-sided opening Test at Lord's and the feeling that international cricket is being devalued by the number of games played. Not to mention the taint attached by the Robert Mugabe factor.

Those who stayed away missed a better contest than many envisaged after England decided to bat first on a true, if slow, pitch. The tourists, clearly stung at being dubbed the poorest overseas side ever to visit this island, at least denied England the serenity of effortless run-gathering.

Alistair Campbell, Murray Goodwin, Neil Johnson, Andy Flower, Brian Murphy, Craig Wishart, Henry Olonga, Bryan Strang and Hamilton Masadza would make this Zimbabwe side a recognisable force were they present. For varying reasons they are not, and some of those called up in their stead might not readily be selected for a Second Division county side.

These would not include Douglas Hondo, the 23-year-old dreadlocked pace bowler who promises to be the most memorable figure of this brief series.

He has form to go with the energetic menace in his run-up, having burst on to the international stage with four wickets in India in a one-dayer in 2001-02 after being picked out of the blue. He is still raw, often overstepping or overpitching, but liable to inflict damage.

He did so yesterday afternoon, ripping out Mark Butcher, Robert Key and Nasser Hussain in the space of 11 deliveries as Zimbabwe could claim to have won a session. Hussain, in his 100th international match as England captain, was denied the chance to celebrate in what so far has been a lean summer.

Eight weeks into the season, Hussain has batted only six times in first-class cricket and has yet to reach a century in aggregate, let alone score one. Then again, given the scant amount of county cricket he seems willing or is permitted to play, this is hardly surprising.

Perhaps Alec Stewart will be the player to score the Riverside's first Test hundred and propel England towards a victory that might be more portentous for the ground than the size of the opening-day crowd. When England last visited a new Test venue, at Sheffield's Bramall Lane 101 years ago, they were heavily beaten and never went back.

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