This post was originally published on All Out Cricket on June 3rd, 2016.

Originally published in issue 13 of The Nightwatchman, the Wisden Cricket Quarterly, Tim Wigmore’s piece on the intriguing tale of how Durham became a first-class county.

The best things in life are worth waiting for. So it was for North-East cricket fans on 19 April 1992. It had been 100 years since Durham County Cricket Club were formed. Now, on this crisp Sunday, they were finally making their debut as a first-class county.

The Racecourse Ground was a familiar venue to Durham cricket lovers. Nestled by the River Wear, with the city’s cathedral and castle in view, it was a lush setting to watch the cricketing travails of Durham University. It seemed a little incongruous that the ground was now home to Ian Botham and Dean Jones, two of Durham’s new recruits.

Not that anyone was complaining as Lancashire arrived for this historic Sunday League match. Far from the dozens at a typical sleepy university game, somewhere close to 10,000 saw a glimpse of Durham that day. “It was a packed house, a great occasion and a day that will live with me forever,” reflects Bob Jackson, a committee member who later became Durham chairman.

As Botham and Wayne Larkins walked out to open the batting against Lancashire, they were greeted by expectant applause. Really the Racecourse Ground’s thanks should have been reserved for Jackson and the rest of Durham’s committee, the men who had fought for the area to gain a first-class side.

Cricket is a game of conservatism and deeply ingrained hierarchies. Nowhere has that been truer than in county cricket, where first-class teams have been barely more receptive to new recruits than the UN Security Council. When Devon applied to become a first-class county in 1948 they did not even receive an official response. So even conceiving of Durham becoming a first-class county was too much for many. But as the side became increasingly dominant in minor counties cricket – going 65 games unbeaten between 1975 and 1982, and winning four titles between 1976 and 1984 – a sense grew that Durham had outgrown the level. It helped, too, that Durham became the first minor county to defeat a first-class team when they toppled Yorkshire in the Gillette Cup in 1973. Durham’s vibrant club cricket and the paucity of first-class cricket in bordering Northumberland, Cumbria or Tyne and Wear also fed into the idea that the county was worthy of a first-class side.

In the early 1980s, members of Durham’s committee who dreamed of becoming a first-class team approached Northumberland about a joint bid for first-class status: a way of making the huge financial and organisational challenges seem a little less overwhelming. Yet a joint bid begat new difficulties and in 1985 the idea collapsed for good, with Northumberland unconvinced that there would ever be a new side admitted to the County Championship.

Many in Durham were no more optimistic, and an unwieldy committee of 29 hardly lent itself to decisive decision-making. But Matthew Roseberry, a local businessman who was sick of the region’s best cricketing talents (including both his sons) having to leave the county to pursue a professional career, was convinced that Durham could have a first-class team of their own. Roseberry formed the McEwan Indoor Cricket Centre as a hub for local young talent in 1985. When Durham’s committee assembled a three-man working group to explore whether the idea was plausible in 1988, Roseberry donated office space at the cricket centre to the group.

Those who wished to dissuade the working group from the idea were not hard to find. “The biggest problem was convincing the committee to even attempt first-class status,” reflects Tom Moffat, a former minor counties player for Durham who was treasurer and a member of the working group. One senior financial expert told them it would be “lunacy” to even attempt it.

Moffat was not easily deterred. The more he looked into the concept, the more he viewed the North-East’s lack of representation in first-class cricket as unfair. Constrained by the meagre budget of a minor county, Moffat came to regard his wife and sons as “the staff of Durham County Cricket Club”.

In March 1989, Moffat and the working group completed a comprehensive feasibility study, convinced that Durham could sustain a vibrant first-class side. The full committee agreed, and Durham promptly submitted their application to the Test and County Cricket Board to become the 18th first-class county.

The TCCB responded by forming a working party of its own to liaise with Durham. Moffat says that at times it felt like they existed to impede the bid rather than aid it: “The working party used to put hurdles up for us to jump.” Most draconian was the stipulation that Durham had to build a ground capable of hosting Test cricket, even though only 11 of the existing 17 counties had such a facility.

Durham’s committee spent much of the next two summers cajoling county chairmen and chief executives for support. Their arguments traversed diverse terrain, arguing that a team would recognise the popularity of the game in the North-East and help lift it up further, while having an even number of teams could help rationalise the fixture schedule. Durham also had to prove that their entrance would not simply mean that the money the TCCB divided up among counties would have to be spread around more thinly.

The TCCB working party said that Durham would need to have £1 million in the bank and their own ground within five years, and to show how they would get to that stage. While Durham were among the wealthiest minor counties, they only had reserves of £28,000 in 1988. For their application to be successful, Durham needed to prove to the TCCB that they had £500,000 they could call upon if they became first-class. “The region as well as Durham county rose to that challenge,” David Harker, chief executive officer, says. The first £100,000 came from Newcastle Building Society, and support soon followed from Scottish and Newcastle Breweries, while Roseberry was able to tap into the local business community.

Durham were not dealing with a governing body receptive to new counties. It had been a full 70 years since the TCCB last admitted a new first-class county, Glamorgan. It had been even longer – 1905 – since a county from England had been allowed to join the County Championship. “We were never entirely convinced that the TCCB really wanted Durham to be successful in their bid for first-class status,” reflects David Harker, who was financial controller for Durham at the time and later became chief executive of the club.

On 6 December 1990, the vote came. Durham had made their case with diligence and passion, yet as their fate was being decided Durham remained on the outside: not being a first-class county, they weren’t allowed to Lord’s for the meeting. Like Barack Obama winning the presidency, the final result – 16 counties in favour, with Sussex abstaining, when 12 votes were needed for the resolution to pass – makes the outcome seem inevitable in hindsight. It did not feel like that to Harker at the time. “It was on a knife-edge throughout. I don’t think it was ever fully taken for granted.”

Even this moment of triumph contained a minor gripe: Durham claimed they were ready to start in 1991, but the TCCB insisted they have another year to prepare. Still, having been a minor county for 99 years, it made sense for Durham to finish on a round 100 before being elevated to first-class life.

While Jones cruised to a magnificent century against Lancashire, bristling with the intent that made him a pioneering one-day cricketer, it was just as well that he was not interrupted by rain. Those unconvinced by Durham’s case had even resorted to saying it rained too much in the county for it to have a first-class side. Enter a team at Durham University, who produced a study showing average annual precipitation in Durham was actually among the lowest in England. It embodied the assiduousness of Durham’s working group, knowing their opponents would exploit any gap in their case.

Durham’s maiden day as a first-class county ended with a pulsating nine-run victory, sealed as glimpses of twilight were enveloping the Racecourse Ground. The months after were rather less kind. Despite the occasional euphoric moment – defeating Glamorgan by an innings in Cardiff to record their maiden Championship victory; chasing 213 in only 39 overs to beat Somerset at Darlington and win a Championship game at a home ground for the first time – Durham proved that a chasm existed between the minor counties and first-class cricket. The side was unhealthily over-reliant on Jones, who returned to Australia in July. Only two victories came in 22 games. The upshot was the wooden spoon.

And Durham still didn’t have a permanent home. In their first season they played at six home grounds – The Racecourse in central Durham; Grangefield Road in Stockton-on-Tees; Feethams Cricket Ground in Darlington; Park Drive in Hartlepool; Eastwood Gardens in Gateshead; and Ropery Lane in Chester-le-Street. It was at Ropery Lane that Dickie Bird was irked during a game between Durham and the Pakistanis in 1992. Unwilling to get changed with the players, Bird had no choice but to resort to the boiler room, complaining that it resembled a sauna.

When Durham were accepted as a first-class side, it was contingent on them developing a ground able to host Test matches. The Riverside in Chester-Le-Street – sporting fields that also functioned as “a dog’s toilet,” as Moffat recalls – did not immediately look like a suitable venue. But it had significant advantages – room to expand, a wonderful view of Lumley Castle and within seven miles of Sunderland, Newcastle and Durham city. Best of all, the ground was available, though Durham had a nervous wait for planning permission after 22,000 people signed a petition against the redevelopment, claiming that local views would be damaged. In 1993 work began on the pitch and Durham’s nomadic existence ended in May 1995 when the Riverside Ground made its first-class debut in a match against Warwickshire.

Even with a proper home at last, Durham were no better on the pitch. Bottom again in 1993, they had shown a modest improvement in 1994 and 1995, winning four Championship games in each season. Yet in 1996, their fifth year, Durham endured their worst season yet in 1996: five draws, 12 losses and not even one paltry win. They were 34 points adrift at the bottom of the table, a gap less River Wear than Atlantic Ocean. Durham even came bottom of the Sunday League to boot.

After Bangladesh received Test status in 2000, they spent much of the next 15 years being told that prize should be rescinded. Durham never had a moment when their first-class status was under threat, but their poor early seasons pricked local pride. Still, at least Durham’s argument that they would receive a sizable fan base was vindicated: within a few years Durham had the highest membership beyond the six counties that traditionally hosted Test matches.

And in hindsight 1996 can be identified as a pivotal year for the club. Brown became the first cricketer to make his England debut while at Durham. Not only was he locally raised, in Cleadon, but he had Durham to thank for transforming his career: he had been released by Northamptonshire in 1990, after 15 first-class games. Here, then, was the first indication that an extra first-class county had the potential to nurture talent from the North-East and give opportunity to those denied it at other counties.

By the time the miserable summer of 1996 was over, Durham also had a new captain. After Matthew Roseberry’s son Mike stepped down from the role, Geoff Cook flew Down Under to recruit David Boon as captain. Boon signed on for two years, and ended up lasting a third. “He knew how to win. He brought a bit of toughness to Durham and that’s been maintained since his departure,” reflects Jackson. Boon did not regard Chester-le-Street as a retirement home. There is no greater testament to his worth than the fact Durham finished 1999 (the harum-scarum final season before the introduction of two divisions) as a Division One county.

The most pivotal development in 1996 was the creation of an academy. What is now standard was innovative at the time. Under the stewardship of Cook (according to Jackson, “the greatest signing Durham ever made”) Durham forged the premier county academy in the game. “The other counties seem to realise now that if you can produce your own it’s great not only developing their allegiance for the county but that it’s cost saving as well,” Jackson says.

Partly the academy was a manifestation of Durham’s ethos. “The ideal is to be successful with a local team,” Harker reflects. It was a vision emphatically realised in the County Championship victories of 2008, 2009 and 2013 – years in which the majority of Durham’s squad hailed from the North-East.

A statistic Harker relates with particular pride is what happens to graduates of Durham’s academy. One in seven progress to play professionally, and one in seven of those has gone on to play for England. Even those who have not progressed have helped to lift up the standard of club cricket in the county.

When England regained the Ashes in 2009, Peter Roebuck said it was less a victory for the country than for “Durham and the Dominions”. Awarding Durham first-class status has been a boon for English cricket in a way that no one could have envisaged. “The professional team and the professional headquarters gave a vocal point for the development of cricket which hadn’t been there before,” Harker says. “I don’t think we would have had the number of international and also county players that we’ve produced without being a first-class county. Paul Collingwood himself will remember Durham becoming first-class and the excitement it gave him – it gave him something to aim for.”

Yet there is an uncomfortable corollary of England’s modern dependence on Durham: it suggests that the country has historically wasted cricketing talent from the North-East. While some players still emerged from the county to play for England, promising talents in Durham did not have the opportunities enjoyed today. There is an undercurrent of sadness in how Harker recalls the victory over Yorkshire in 1973: “Players who played in that game clearly had a talent that was being restricted. Most of them decided to stay at home, earn money as club professionals and play minor counties cricket for Durham. There’s no doubt that a few of them had the talent to go on and play first-class cricket had they not had to go through the upheaval of leaving the region.”

If the lack of a first-class team before 1992 led to talent being missed or unfulfilled in Durham, the logical conclusion is that the same thing is still happening elsewhere, in the 22 English counties that lack a first-class team. As Scyld Berry notes in Cricket: The Game of Life, in producing players England have suffered from “far too many cold spots” outside of the southern shires and the Rose counties.

So perhaps discussions about reducing the number of counties in the English game miss the point. Harker would rather the county game in England was expanded than contracted. “The model has worked at Durham so you couldn’t say that it wouldn’t work elsewhere.” Earlier this year, Cornwall and Devon expressed interest in forming a joint side in the County Championship when the ECB was mooting whether to increase the competition to 21 teams (also including Ireland and Scotland) playing across three divisions of seven. The third tier could even be semi-pro to reduce costs.

Such a structure could confer significant advantages on the English game. Talent would be concentrated more greatly in Division One, reducing the gap between that and Test cricket and so helping the England team. More players would be playing Championship cricket, keeping avenues open for late developers, something England has historically been very bad at compared with other countries. Most importantly, it could help the vibrancy of the game across the country. Children would have greater opportunity to see and be inspired by their local team, and convinced that it does represent a viable career.

On the morning of 8 August 2015, England needed three wickets to secure the Ashes at Trent Bridge. Nottinghamshire have traditionally been among the most effective suppliers of English fast bowling, and Stuart Broad’s surreal first-innings spell was in keeping with this rich lineage.

But since the turn of the century there has been no rival to Durham as a stable of English fast bowling. Steve Harmison, Graham Onions and Liam Plunkett have all graduated through Durham’s academy into the England Test team. Now it was left to Ben Stokes and Mark Wood to jag the ball around like conjurers. When Nathan Lyon dragged onto his stumps, Wood had bested Stokes to take the Ashes-clinching wicket although, with six second-innings scalps, Stokes did not look like a man too aggrieved.

As Stokes and Wood draped themselves in the flag of St George to toast England’s win, so Durham’s role in England’s Ashes triumphs was extended. In 2005 England had Durham to thank for Harmison’s ferocity. At Cardiff in 2009 Collingwood’s resoluteness betrayed a man who had honed his defence at the Riverside, and Onions and Harmison both shattered Australian stumps. Down Under in 2010/11 Collingwood was there again. No Durham player made it onto the field in 2013, but Australia’s collapse on the fourth afternoon at Chester-le-Street secured the England series victory.

Players who advanced through the Durham academy provide a common thread through much of what has been best about English cricket this century. “When you see them walk out and play for England it’s a fantastic achievement and a fantastic pleasure for thousands of us,” Jackson reflects. The thanks should be all England’s.

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