Sunday, August 25, 2013

Random thoughts on the Ashes: Chester-le-Street

In England I was renowned as a reluctant venturer north. A Lancastrian colleague years ago was irritated when I told her that I had a job interview “up north”, only to reveal that it was in Stroud, only twenty miles or so from Bristol (cricket relevance: the interview was at Jack Russell’s old school, but I did not get the job).

I have certainly never got as far up the country as Chester-le-Street, headquarters of Durham CCC and venue for the fourth Test. Fewer than 20,000 live in the town itself, which must make it the smallest place ever to have staged a Test match, though Google Earth confirms that Chester-le-Street is really an outpost of the Tyneside-Wearside conurbation. 

Durham only became a first-class county in 1992. For over a hundred years before then the north-east’s many talented cricketers had to travel south to play first-class cricket, and the nearest county, Yorkshire, would not have them because of its ridiculous rule about having to be born within the Ridings. Northamptonshire benefitted most from this situation. Geoff Cook and Peter Willey both had lengthy careers at Wantage Road, and played for England, in Willey’s case, not as often as he should have done. They had both followed Colin Milburn south.

Milburn was a cricketer out of time in the 1960s. We have been reminded at times during the current series of the funereal tempo at which cricket, in England at least, was conducted then. Milburn ignored the orthodoxy of the coaching book and counter attacked. David Warner would be his modern equivalent, in his approach to batting, at least. As a person, Milburn was altogether more jocular and friendly, which was his downfall.

Milburn was first picked for England in the 1966 series against the West Indies. Run out for a duck in the first innings, he made 94 from 136 balls in the second, following with a century at a similar pace at Lord’s in the second Test. This against Hall, Griffith, Sobers and Gibbs, the finest attack of the day. Supersonic batting in the subsonic age. Milburn opened with Boycott in two Tests that summer, a duet between Kiri te Kanawa and Janis Joplin.

Today, scoring like that in his first two Tests would have established Milburn in the England side for a couple of years. Not then. He never became a regular. Two appearances in 1967, two more in 1968, then a late call up from a successful season for Western Australia to join MCC in Pakistan. On arrival he asked who was injured. “No-one”, they said, “we just needed cheering up”. He scored a hundred in his only overseas Test, in Karachi, nevertheless.

He was only 27, and might yet have become one of England’s most renowned. But two months later he lost an eye in a car accident and that was that. He did a bit of commentary on radio and TV, but hit the drink hard. I did a bit of work for the phone commentary service Cricketcall in the late 1980s. Milburn worked for them too, and it was reported that he would turn up having apparently slept in his car all night. He was 48 when he died in 1990, one of Durham and England’s lost treasures.

I was at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff when Durham won their first Championship game, an innings victory over Glamorgan:

In that first season the Durham team consisted largely of old lags enjoying a season or two’s superannuation, the average age that of a bowls club rather than a county cricket team. David Graveney was captain, supported by Paul Parker, Wayne Larkins, Simon Hughes, Gloucestershire’s Phil Bainbridge and, above all, Ian Botham, who was to describe joining Durham as the biggest mistake of his career. Dean Jones was the overseas player. On that day in Wales though, it was one of Durham’s own, medium-fast left-armer Simon Brown, who got it done with five for 66.

They finished bottom that year, but with a focus on developing local talent, intelligent leadership both on and off the field and wise choices of overseas talent (Dale Benkenstein and Ottis Gibson among others) Durham have prospered to the extent of becoming county champions in 2008 and 2009 and one-day champions in 2007, having an attractive international ground and developing key talent (Harmison, Collingwood) for the England team. If only Kent’s past two decades had been remotely as successful.

The increase in the number of international venues in England over the past decade has not been wise. Southampton is too close to London to be a worthwhile addition, while Cardiff’s elevation was down to political largesse and the ambition of a few individuals. It has also turned a pleasant and friendly county ground into a stadium too big for purpose on all but a day or two a year.

But the addition of the Riverside is welcome. It is the most attractive of the international grounds and provides Test and ODI cricket to a large population area with a strong cricket tradition—even though Durham is the newest of the first-class counties, high quality club cricket dates back to the mid-nineteenth century and leagues have thrived in the region almost as strongly as in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The sporting folk of Newcastle and Sunderland surely welcome a diversion from the perpetual misery of following their under-performing football teams.

Durham folk enjoyed a good game for their first Ashes Test. Nothing cheers up an English crowd like an Australian collapse when in sight of the finish line. This one—eight for 56—rivalled the likes of Melbourne 1998—eight for 59,—Edgbaston 1981—five for 16—and, of course, the gold standard of Headingley 1981—nine for 55. A shame that they will have to wait for three years before they see another Test on their lovely ground.

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