Five Trophies and a Funeral: The Building and Rebuilding of Durham County Cricket Club does not just look at what has gone wrong in recent years, but also what has gone right, and Durham’s biggest success since turning first-class has been producing top county and international cricketers. Speak to them, and those behind the Riversiders’ academy, and they will tell you league cricket is vital.
Paul Collingwood made 300 England appearances in all formats, captaining 60 times in limited-overs cricket. By the time Durham’s academy opened in 1996, Collingwood was already in Durham’s first team, so much of his initial cricketing education came through his local club, Shotley Bridge, now in the North East Premier League.
“They were the most important years,” says Collingwood, who wrote the foreword to the book. “I think local league cricket is the biggest factor in why Durham has such a good record of producing players. When you play against adults at a young age you quickly experience failure and you’ve got to find a way to overcome that. It puts you in good stead.
“My life was down Shotley Bridge Cricket Club, literally seven days a week. I played games midweek and you were travelling around and there was the banter. Other people would be finishing work at five o’clock and having a mad rush to get to Thornaby or somewhere like that for six o’clock to play a cup tie.”
Providing a better route into first-class cricket was a big motivation behind Durham joining first-class cricket. They were driven by men like Don Robson, chairman of Greenside, and Lintz’s Bob Jackson – key figures in the recreational game nationally. Ex-England opener Geoff Cook provided a professional perspective as director of cricket ahead of Durham’s debut season in 1992 and saw club cricket as the foundation for the academy he was determined to build.
“Places like Eppleton, Hetton Lyons and Shotley Bridge have a history that stands young cricketers in good stead,” he says.
Durham’s academy director John Windows thinks northern counties have a natural advantage.
“When you’re selecting fellas out of club cricket, for them to have reached a level they’ve got to have a bit of fight and independent spirit to them,” he argues. “I think that would be unique to the north. I don’t think there’s such strong league cricket elsewhere in the country where the best players are in independent schools.
“Our fellas are playing against really good recreational cricketers who are teachers and plumbers and whatever – people choosing to play a really high level of cricket on a Saturday. You’ve got to be blummin’ good to battle against them.”
For others, the leagues provided an important safety net.
When Ben Whitehead made his Durham debut at Worcestershire in an August 2018 Twenty20 game, he was one of four visiting players originally released by the academy. Graham Clark had a year with MCC Young Cricketers, and James Weighell proved his fitness in the North Yorkshire South Durham League after a winter in Australia. Whitehead and Chris Rushworth played NEPL cricket for Hetton Lyons and Sunderland respectively.
Rushworth’s family is steeped in league cricket – dad Joe played for Hylton, where Chris’s cousin Phil Mustard started his journey to becoming Durham’s greatest wicketkeeper-batsman. Phil’s brother Alan is a top league cricketer and Chris’s brother Lee played for Sunderland.
Released in 2005, Chris rejoined Durham in 2009, and is now their fourth-highest first-class wicket-taker.
“Before I joined the academy I played for Sunderland and I went back there when I was released,” he recalls. “Simon Brown was in and around as a coach and when I was doing well he would be saying: ‘I think you should get Rushy in for a look.’ One winter I went back, did OK, did pre-season nets and was asked to play a few games at the start of the season.”
Durham Academy initially played in the Durham Senior League but joined the inaugural NEPL in 2000. They have pulled out for 2019, but insist they are not turning their back on it. Academy players will still play NEPL cricket, just for their clubs, as those outside the first XI do.
New Durham chief executive Tim Bostock, a former minor counties cricketer, believes: “They can be too cossetted playing in their own world of 18-year-olds. In a changing room of talented amateur cricketers they will grow up a lot quicker. Plus, those clubs did develop them in the first place and it should strengthen them.”
Chairman Sir Ian Botham insists Durham want to bolster, not weaken, their links with the leagues, using the Riverside and its new nursery ground.
“We want to develop our facilities for the club sides,” he says. “Some of the clubs felt we were taking but not giving anything back. I had a long chat with Bob (Jackson, still a Durham director, as well as Durham Cricket Board chairman) and that’s something we’ll definitely put right. We’re going to have finals on this ground – under-15s, under-13s, area and district finals, league finals, whatever. I want everyone to feel part of it.”
But Neil Killeen, recently promoted to high performance bowling coach, warns more must be done.
“I’m a huge advocate of league cricket in the North East,” he says. “If you are playing with senior players you get a pat on the back when you do well and you get told when you don’t perform, which helps you learn.
“We’re very good in terms of young players coming through but the standards in the leagues have dipped a little bit and clubs are struggling financially and for players. I’d love us to go to purely first XI cricket on a Saturday and move second XI cricket to Sundays with third XI midweek to take off the pressure of having to turn out 22 players, for volunteers and umpires. We’ve got to help the clubs because it’s been the strength of the North East.”
Durham County Cricket Club has been built on home-grown talent, but it would be nothing without high-quality leagues like the NEPL.
• Five Trophies and a Funeral: The Building and Rebuilding of Durham County Cricket Club by Stuart Rayner is published on March 7th. The author will be talking about it, and selling and signing copies, at the Riverside on March 7th, 7.30pm. For details email firstname.lastname@example.org.