When Durham were relegated at the end of the 2016 season with penalties from the ECB that seemed harsh, the sympathies of many, including those a distance from Chester-le-Street, were with the county, the game’s governing body once again cast as the villan of the piece. For anyone interested in the background, curious enough for a second take, Stuart Rayner’s book, while mainly about matters on-field, also gives a good airing to the decision-making behind the scenes and the risks that were taken.
He doesn’t shy from pointing out that Durham’s financial difficulties were, at least partly, self-inflicted. Minor county in 1991 to Test match venue in a little over a decade seems quick, excessively so, particularly given that it understandably took several years for the county to find its feet playing first-class cricket. What happened to simply developing a good county ground?
‘Ambition is the centrepiece of sporting dreams and all of us cricket folks are dreamers in one way or another’, Mark Nicholas is quoted as saying in Durham’s wake. The mission to give local kids opportunities to play first-class cricket, Paul Collingwood was 15 when the county became one of 18, was and is eminently laudable. The spirit of Durham so to speak, and a strapline of ‘international cricket, locally sourced’ to sell tickets sounds good.
But major new sporting venues can be long-term projects; the Rose Bowl by comparison took around 25 years to develop from idea to hosting its first Test. Time enough for circumstances, the world, to change and for the dreams of cricketing folk to collide. On the horizon here the 18 counties (“centres of excellence”) concentrated on their main grounds and retreated from playing elsewhere. England, the ECB, essentially did the opposite, with three new ‘international outgrounds’ developed to the point of being able to stage Test matches.
With no more than 6 venues out of 9 hosting a Test, and with the importance of staging an Ashes fixture to balance years when there wasn’t, a recipe was made for financial problems. By comparison with the other TMG’s, Durham didn’t borrow particularly big, they ‘simply’ couldn’t keep up their interest payments. Breaching the salary cap was one sign of the pressures in the years when trophies were won and financial losses made; although it would be fair to add that the county’s revenues, whilst growing with the development of the Riverside, also became increasingly variable over the years from first ODI in 2000 v WI when 15,000 came, to the Sri Lanka Test attended by just 2759 in 2016.
But no question that some of the difficulties can be traced to problems at the centre being passed on to the counties, chief among them the ECB being able to maintain its own income from 2006 onwards, which came at the cost of trading away FTA coverage of England. As to the future, Stuart’s Rayner’s book concludes with the development of younger players as the route for Durham, a return to where the county came in, evolve, the need for financial sanity obvious messages. Messages for others as well, given the new TV contract and the variability of revenues coming the way of the game.
Numbers on the background on the Stats page.