Titles, setbacks and a reset: 30 years of Durham in the County Championship | Durham

“It was a bit like The Magnificent Seven, and I use that comparison in the most liberal sense,” says David Graveney of Durham’s breakout summer of 1992. Having mined the local leagues and offered a last hurrah to a motley crew of ageing stars, it was Larkins, Botham and Bainbridge rather than McQueen, Bronson and Brynner who took the field for the club’s first season as a first-class county.

Graveney, then 39, arrived in the north-east having spent a solitary season at Somerset following almost 20 years with Gloucestershire. It was his task to captain the side after being convinced to take on the role by his close friend Geoff Cook. “Working with Geoff was just a dream come true for me,” says the former left-arm spinner. “He had enthusiasm, calmness, wisdom, and he’d been a fantastic player.”

Cook, a tough-as-teak opener who won seven Test caps for England, is the thread that stitches this whole story together; from those early years when he was called upon to provide credibility to Durham’s audacious bid to join the top table of the domestic game, through to the formation of the club’s extraordinarily fertile academy that he oversaw for many years, and eventually to the trophies that followed. “I’d name the whole ground after him,” said Steve Harmison when Cook stepped down as director of cricket in 2018.

Founded in 1882, Durham County Cricket Club has a rich history – they were the first Minor County to defeat a first-class team when they shocked Geoffrey Boycott’s Yorkshire at Harrogate in 1973 and went 65 games unbeaten between 1976 and 1982, paving the way for their elevation. It was the north-east’s passion for the game, personified by Durham’s indomitable chairman Don Robson, which helped persuade English first-class cricket to open its doors for the first time since 1921, when Glamorgan were welcomed to the fold.

“I was asked if I would help in the preparations for the application while they were still a Minor County,” says Cook. “And then I was asked if I would help organise a cricketing structure which included recruiting junior players and also some senior ones to make up the bulk of the first team. The ability to sign players from other counties was hugely restricted at that stage, so it wasn’t a question of cherry-picking players at will.”

Ian Botham in action for Durham in 1992.
Ian Botham in action for Durham in 1992. Photograph: Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock

The club pulled off a major coup by prising Ian Botham, then 36 and “fresh” off the back of his World Cup exploits, from Worcestershire, with former England internationals Wayne Larkins and Paul Parker coming along for Cook’s “fantasy ride”. More significant, though, was the capture of Dean Jones, the Australian run-machine who sat top of the ODI batting rankings when he arrived at Durham. A broken hand meant the club didn’t see as much of Jones as they would have liked, but he didn’t disappoint in their first match as a first-class outfit, crunching 114 from 85 deliveries in front of a packed crowd at the Racecourse Ground as Durham defeated Lancashire by nine runs in a televised Sunday League fixture.

“It was an extraordinary occasion,” says Graveney. “I was wondering if our team were actually going to turn up, because they were all coming from different directions. Would I have seven? Eight? Eventually they did all make it. It was a quaint ground, overlooked by a maximum-security jail. I remember they let the prisoners watch from the roof.”

Durham used six home grounds in that first season, eventually moving to their current location at Chester-le-Street in 1995, and the early years were hard toil. They finished bottom of the Championship in 1992 and picked up the wooden spoon three times in their first five seasons, culminating in a winless 1996 campaign. “It was good fun but reality gradually hit when victories were hard to come by, and became even harder as a couple of seasons went on,” says Cook. “It was important that we started to try to develop some youngsters who were going to give some longevity to the whole thing.”

In 1996, in a hugely significant moment in the club’s history, the Durham Academy was formed, with Cook given the responsibility of unearthing and nurturing the region’s brightest talents. But there was a more immediate issue for him to attend to that winter. “The club were really desperate to get hold of somebody of world stature and David Boon and his agent had shown quite a degree of keenness, and so the club bought me a plane ticket to Australia and said, ‘Go and see what you can do’. I spent three days flying and thankfully David committed himself. We had some pretty good players in the first team but they hadn’t acquired the winning nous, and Boon was a key recruit in terms of bringing that little bit of hardness and savvy to these younger players. The club really benefitted from his three years of captaincy.”

In 1999, Boon’s final year with the club and the last season in which the Championship operated as one division, Durham finished eighth, propelling themselves into the top tier. Their progress remained far from smooth – they were relegated in 2000 and didn’t return to the top flight until 2006 – but their focus on youth development was starting to bear fruit.

Homegrown talents Paul Collingwood, Steve Harmison and Liam Plunkett all debuted for England between 2001 and 2005, and the arrival of Dale Benkenstein marked a sharp upturn in the club’s fortunes. Taking over the captaincy in 2006, the steely South African led Durham to their first major trophy the following season – thrashing much-fancied Hampshire in the Friends Provident Trophy final at Lord’s – and a runners-up finish in the Championship.

Durham players show off the title in 2008.
Durham players show off the title in 2008. Photograph: Gary M Prior/Getty Images

In 2008 they took the holy grail, an army of supporters making the long trip down to Canterbury to be part of the victory that secured Durham the title. “When you see people from disadvantaged backgrounds come through and become international cricketers, that is a great satisfaction,” says Cook. “But the lasting impression of my time with Durham was that match down at Kent. That was an unbelievable feeling, to see all the travelling fans coming to witness this historic moment.”

They repeated the trick the next summer, going unbeaten throughout the 2009 campaign to make it back-to-back Championships. A club that had been also-rans for much of their first-class existence were suddenly the side to beat. For Scott Borthwick, who had been watching Durham since the age of seven and had represented the club from under-11s, the winning feeling was infectious. “They were a proper squad of players,” says Borthwick, aged 17 when Durham won their first silverware and on the fringes of the first team. “That Friends Provident Trophy win was the start of something and then it just kicked on from there. It was almost in the blood. We realised what we had to do to be a Durham player – we had to keep winning.”

Across a 10-year period spanning 2007 to 2016, Durham never finished outside the top six in the Championship, also collecting two one-day trophies in that time. In 2013, a squad featuring eight current or future England internationals – including Borthwick, Ben Stokes, Mark Wood and Graham Onions – claimed Durham’s third Championship in six seasons. No county has won more titles across the 21st century.

Paul Collingwood at Chester-Le-Street in 2016.
Paul Collingwood at Chester-Le-Street in 2016. Photograph: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

On 3 October 2016, two weeks after solidifying their position in the top tier of the Championship with a fourth-place finish, and a month after reaching their first T20 final, Durham were dealt a crushing blow, the reverberations of which are still being felt at Chester-le-Street. When the Brexit vote that year led a private equity firm to call in an £800,000 loan, Durham, who were already peering over the financial precipice, were left with no choice but to go cap in hand to the ECB.

The governing body responded with a £3.8m bailout – including an advance on the club’s 2017 central payment of £1.3m – to secure the club’s future, but the trade-off was devastating. Not only were Durham relegated to Division Two, they were also slapped with a 48-point penalty for the 2017 campaign.

To pile on the misery, the club were told they would no longer be able to host Test matches, that non-player related ECB prize money for 2016 would need to be returned, and that they would also receive points deductions in the 50-over and T20 competitions. “To help them through these difficulties and continue as a first-class county, this had to be addressed with immediate, practical financial assistance,” said ECB chief executive Tom Harrison at the time. “We also have a wider responsibility to the whole game and need strong deterrents in place to preserve the game’s integrity and financial stability.”

Durham were not without blame for their predicament – they had received points deductions in 2012 for exceeding the salary cap – but the punishments dished out by the ECB felt draconian, not least because it was at their insistence that the club had built an international venue, incurring significant debt in the process and generally drawing the short straw – or no straw at all – when it came to fixture allocation. And besides, having produced players of the calibre of Stokes, Harmison, Wood and Collingwood, you could argue that English cricket owed Durham a great debt rather than the other way around.

Ben Stokes in action for Durham in 2016.
Ben Stokes in action for Durham in 2016. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

The sanctions led to the heart of the side being ripped out of the club. With prize assets Borthwick and Mark Stoneman having already signed deals to join Surrey for the 2017 season, they were followed through the exit door by Keaton Jennings, Graham Onions and Paul Coughlin among others over the next two years. More lucrative offers to play first-division cricket proved too enticing to turn down.

Durham, once again, would need to build from the bottom up. “I didn’t know the club were in that bad a state,” says Borthwick. “I agreed to leave before that news got announced. I was off to Surrey, but I remember being in Sainsbury’s and an old bloke came up to me and he was absolutely devastated. He mentioned that Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Sunderland football teams were struggling, and said Durham were flying the flag for the north-east.”

It came as a particularly cruel blow to Cook, who saw several of the local talents he had developed leave the club. “That was a sad couple of years,” he says. “These players had come through the system and made great contributions to Durham’s development, and then suddenly they decided to leave and further their careers elsewhere.”

Durham were only saved from the Championship wooden spoon by Leicestershire in 2017 before finishing a place higher the following season and then flirting with promotion in 2019, leaning heavily on their academy products as they regenerated the squad on a shoestring budget. They were assisted too by a knight in shining armour, Botham returning to the club as chairman in 2017, 25 years after he had signed as a player, to give Durham some heft as they looked to access new commercial avenues.

There was also a steady trickle of familiar names returning to the playing staff, with three Sunderland-born players re-joining: Ben Raine in 2019, Coughlin in 2020 and, before last season, Borthwick returning as club skipper – a move that delighted Cook. “When I left, I was looking over my shoulder thinking I would potentially like to go back at some stage,” says Borthwick.

“As soon as it came about, it was a bit of a no-brainer. The north east has a special way of bringing people back, or getting people attached to it. A lot of the players we’ve signed over the years, whether it’s overseas players or guys from other counties, they straight away have that attachment. Whether it’s the people or the place, there’s just that pride and passion at the club.”

Scott Borthwick hits a century for Durham in 2016.
Scott Borthwick hits a century for Durham in 2016. Photograph: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

“It’s probably coming through the darkness now,” says Cook of Durham’s current situation. The financial outlook looks more encouraging – the club’s accounts for 2020 showed an increase in operating profit despite revenue being hit by the pandemic – and Borthwick says anything less than promotion this season would be a disappointment after a third-place finish in Division Two last year.

“Last year our aim was to finish in the top two and get into Division One,” says the skipper. “When we laid that out to the squad at the start of the year, there was a little bit of doubt in the players’ minds because a lot of them hadn’t played a lot of cricket and hadn’t played in Division One. But once we started to play there was a realisation among the lads that we are a decent side. Going back into Division Two this year, the lads have now got a sense that we deserve to be in Division One, that we are good enough. To not finish in the top two would be a massive disappointment. Our aim is not just to go up, but to win Division Two.”

The new issue of Wisden is out now.
The new issue of Wisden is out now.

Durham have needed to summon all of their resilience after being forced to hit the reset button six years ago. Despite the setbacks, they remain one of the proudest and most passionate counties in the land, with a winning mentality – fostered by Cook, Boon, Benkenstein and the rest – which has survived through it all. Returning to the top tier of the county game would be a fitting way to mark their 30th anniversary.

This article was published first in Wisden Cricket Monthly. Guardian readers can get three digital issues of the magazine for just £2.49 or three print issues for just £5.99.

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