So here we are early in 2017, and the initial furore caused by the punishment meted out to Durham at the end of the last county season appears to have subsided.
For those who have forgotten, the decision was taken to relegate Durham and have them start next season on minus 48 points (effectively two maximum point wins) with additional deductions in the one-day competitions. This all came about due to Durham running up debts that appeared to threaten the future existence of the club and the deductions were payback for the ECB bailout. The question that has to be asked though is was it Durham’s fault they got into such financial strife in the first place?
Durham were the dominant force in Minor Counties Cricket in the late 1980s, and once the decision was made to apply for first class status, one of the conditions of there entry into the first-class arena was that they build a ground capable of hosting Test March cricket. Land was secured in Chester-le-Street (old playing fields) and plans were made. On the face of it, it appeared the perfect location, just a couple of miles away from a junction off the A1, but in more recent times, the lack of a walk-up crowd in such a small town has had an affect on attendances.
Durham played their first seasons at a variety of league grounds across County Durham, as well as the picturesque Racecourse Ground in Durham City, and attracted good crowds for four-day and one-day cricket. They moved into their new home in 1995. Bits and pieces were added to the ground until it staged World Cup games in 1999, and the following year England came calling for the first time on a freezing cold July day to play West Indies. It was a great success: the ground was packed and England won well. Test Cricket arrived in 2003, but a pattern began here that was to prove ominous as they were handed minor opposition (Zimbabwe) at the beginning of the season, and the game failed to sell out.
Bangladesh came a couple of years later and a weak West Indies came twice, but none of the games were played at the height of summer, making it difficult to sell these games. Furthermore, the club were unable to charge competitively due to the prohibitive bidding process the ECB had in place.
By the time Durham were finally rewarded with the award of a 2013 Ashes Test, the finances were starting to tighten and it was a last minute effort to put a temporary stand up after the money wasn’t available to go through with the ground plans that had been released. The addition of further Test grounds in more affluent Southampton and Cardiff – which was well backed by the Local Authority when it mattered – took away the chance of regular attractive Test Cricket. The final straw appears to have been the award of a Sri Lanka Test only a week after they had been in Leeds, with the two grounds traditionally pulling from the same fan base for internationals.
No chance has been given to build a tradition of a Test a year, which appeared to have been the promise when Durham started out in the 1990s. The team will recover from the punishment thanks to the wonderful production line from the academy. Indeed, don’t rule out a promotion this year even with the points deduction. But difficulties still lie ahead with an international class ground to run and make a profit on if regular attractive international cricket isn’t forthcoming.