The cost of the ECB all but wiping out Durham's unmanageable debts was relegation and docked points, and the supporters were left with a deep sense of injustice. © Getty Images

The cost of the ECB all but wiping out Durham’s unmanageable debts was relegation and docked points, and the supporters were left with a deep sense of injustice. © Getty Images

The birth of modern Durham was almost an afterthought. On December 5, 1988, while they were still a Minor County, a meeting of the club committee reached Any Other Business. The minutes record: “The chairman outlined the discussions which had been held on an informal basis with a group which was interested in the idea of Durham forming a first-class side.” The statement’s blandness did not anticipate the drama that would unfold. In 1992, after protracted negotiations, the idea became reality, and Durham were installed as the 18th first-class county. Their 25th anniversary should be a time to celebrate glorious deeds.

But it will also be marked by gloom and a sense of injustice, accompanied by the suspicion that a legacy has been either squandered or crushed, depending on your perspective. At least there is a future of sorts. Throughout the first nine months of 2016 – and, in truth, for years before – Durham were close to financial collapse.

Shortly after the end of the season, when they finished fourth in the Championship and runners-up in the NatWest T20 Blast, the ECB announced Durham would be relegated, and docked points in all competitions in 2017 – 48 in the Championship, four in the Blast, two in the Royal London Cup. This was the cost of the ECB all but wiping out their unmanageable debts, in a package worth £3.8m.

No one can doubt Durham have made a substantial contribution to the game, justifying the view that English cricket needs a northern outpost. They have been county champions three times, and have won the 50-over competition twice. Their purpose-built stadium, integral to their original application, has hosted six Tests, 15 one-day and two Twenty20 internationals. They have provided nine England players from their admirable Academy, five of them Ashes winners. There has evolved almost a production line of fast bowlers. And, in Shotley Bridge’s Paul Collingwood, their most capped home-grown player, they can claim England’s only World Cup-winning captain: he lifted the World Twenty20 in 2010.

England Team World T20 2010. © Getty images

One of a kind: Paul Collingwood led England to the World T20 in Barbados, May 2010. © Getty images

To guide them through a convulsive fallout, Durham turned to Ian Botham as their chairman, an appointment promoted by the ECB. In his last great adventure as a player, he scored the club’s first Championship hundred. Now he is back, ready to use his charisma to salvage something from the mess.

The board insisted they had no choice but to impose stringent penalties: Durham needed the money, but there needed to be a deterrent to preserve cricket’s integrity. Opinion in the county – and elsewhere – was that, in being made an example of, they had been discriminated against. In the House of Commons, Kevan Jones, MP for North Durham, called the ECB’s behaviour “disgraceful and shameless”. Durham already had experience of losing points – though in 2013, it was only 2.5 for breaching the ECB salary cap the previous summer. That did not prevent them securing their third Championship in six years. And though the transgression – which they reported – was only £14,000 above the £2m limit, it was evidence of inattentive book-keeping.

Shortly after the end of the season, when Durham finished fourth in the Championship and runners-up in the NatWest T20 Blast, the ECB announced the team would be relegated, and docked points in all competitions in 2017 – 48 in the Championship, four in the Blast, two in the Royal London Cup. This was the cost of the ECB all but wiping out their unmanageable debts, in a package worth £3.8m.

In November 2015, they wrote to the ECB outlining their plight. By May, the board – sensing the game could not allow the collapse of its northern frontier – agreed to help. Throughout the negotiations, it was an open secret at the ECB that one of the prices of rescue would be playing penalties. The trouble was that Durham were not made aware of this until late September, when they were given 48 hours to accept or fold. It still rankles with David Harker, their chief executive. “Relegation had not been discussed since we started talking in May,” he said. “I think there are people in the cricket world who had made their minds up that this might very well be the penalty, and might well have spoken to other people in the cricket world.”

Gordon Hollins, the ECB’s chief operating officer (who once worked at Durham), sees things differently. “You can’t say they didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “Nobody else on the planet looks at it that way. You can say the sanctions were too harsh. I understand that, because it’s emotional and there are different degrees of opinion. But this was the decision.”

It was a crisis years in the making – and everyone could see what was happening. As Harker put it: “By about 1995 it was becoming apparent that the club’s business model wasn’t stacking up.” In essence, the Riverside ground created most of the subsequent problems. Yet if it had not been built, there would have been no first-class status, no Championships, and many fewer Durham Test cricketers. The old Test and County Cricket Board made it a condition that Durham build a stadium of international standard – perhaps partly, Harker muses, to deter them from pursuing their application. But Durham entered into the arrangement enthusiastically. Their bid brochure spoke of a scheme at the newly named Riverside Park which demonstrated “the concept of improving leisure amenities in the area, while at the same time, through developing houses and offices on a small part of the site, providing funds towards the cost of a cricket ground”.

Durham’s England players

Players Tests ODIs T20Is Debut
I. T. Botham 2 5 1992
S. J. E. Brown 1 1996
P. D. Collingwood 68 197 35 2001
S. J. Harmison 63 58 2 2002
L. E. Plunkett 9 29 1 2005-06
P. Mustard 10 2 2007-08
G. Onions 9 4 2009
B. A. Stokes 32 50 21 2011
S. G. Borthwick 1 2 1 2011
M. A. Wood 8 11 1 2015
K. K. Jennings 2 2016-17

They also made a virtue of its “ideal” location near a junction of the A1 motorway, but away from the conurbations of Newcastle, Darlington, Hartlepool and Durham. As Harker concedes, it has – when hosting international cricket over the past decade – proved short of ideal. The only viable route is by road and, though the motorway junction is barely a mile away, the ground has never dispelled the feeling it is off the beaten track. Harker believes Durham could have acted little differently. He also emphasises that they had been trying for nigh on ten years to persuade the ECB to discuss the issue of how county cricket was financed.

“It’s not fair to sit at Lord’s and say this problem is entirely of our own making,” he said. “It isn’t. I look back over the years – the bidding for international cricket, the salary-cap breach – and what could we have done? Where have we let ourselves down? I am happy to sit with anyone who can point to me and say that’s what you should have done instead.”

What about that salary-cap breach? Harker says the club were a victim of their own success in producing England players. “What tipped us over the edge was Graham Onions coming back to us after losing a central contract. When the cap was introduced I remember saying that, unless some sort of transitioning was in place, we would breach it in a couple of years because we already had contracts in place for people who were international players.”

Harker believes Durham could have acted little differently. “It’s not fair to sit at Lord’s and say this problem is entirely of our own making,” he said. “It isn’t. I look back over the years – the bidding for international cricket, the salary-cap breach – and what could we have done? Where have we let ourselves down? I am happy to sit with anyone who can point to me and say that’s what you should have done instead.”

Durham’s results were initially pretty hopeless. They finished in the bottom three of the Championship in each of their first six seasons. It became clear, both to them and the ECB, that the international-class stadium to which they had moved in 1995 – after spending three summers playing at six different club grounds in the North-East – needed international matches.

But the status and timing of those matches – low-key opposition in early June when the northern spring has hardly sprung – were misguided. Zimbabwe came in 2003, Bangladesh in 2005, West Indies in 2007 and again in (May) 2009, when Chris Gayle did not help matters by saying, a few days before the game, that he would not mind if Test cricket died.

Crowds were sparse, it was usually cold, the games were barely contests. Not until 2013, when Australia arrived in August, did the ground host an alluring Test. Even then, despite England retaining the Ashes, it was not a sellout. The visit of Sri Lanka last May was another costly disappointment. There is now a rueful acknowledgment at the ECB that Durham should never have staged Tests – though England have won all six – and that one-day and Twenty20 internationals are the future.

Harker begged to differ: “I don’t think there was an alternative to trying to get involved. It wasn’t necessarily that we were losing money on these games: we just weren’t earning enough. So, if you weren’t involved you would be earning even less. This is still a challenge for cricket. It doesn’t matter how much you promote the game or how much you charge for a ticket. If people don’t want to be there, they’re not going to come.”

Durham targeted team improvement when Clive Leach, a former Warwickshire batsman and retired chairman of Yorkshire–Tyne Tees Television, became chairman in 2004. He was motivated by their bottom-place finish in Division Two of the Championship that summer, and the belief that a winning team might bring in cash to invest in the ground, and arrest the financial decline.

There is a rueful acknowledgment at the ECB that Durham should never have staged Tests – though England have won all six – and that one-day and Twenty20 internationals are the future. © Getty Images

There is a rueful acknowledgment at the ECB that Durham should never have staged Tests – though England have won all six – and that one-day and Twenty20 internationals are the future. © Getty Images

Gradually, Durham became harder to beat. With the sage counselling of Geoff Cook, their director of cricket who had been there from the start, they made astute signings, Dale Benkenstein and Michael Di Venuto among them. The Academy began to bear fruit. But they also drastically reassessed their financial strategy. Leach, born in India, turned to two businessmen he knew there: the Radia brothers – Gautam, who runs several radio stations, and Hiren.

Without fanfare, Durham, who had started their first-class life as a company limited by guarantee, became a private company, in return for nearly £2.5m from the Radias. The ECB were not in a position to veto the move but, having exclusively overseen members’ clubs, they were averse to the dangers this threw up, and reluctant to put cricket’s money into such a set-up, ailing or not. The Radia brothers were hardly asset strippers, but nor – it turned out – did they have the funds to prevent Durham sliding further. The global financial crisis of 2008, the year they landed their first Championship, virtually ended the brothers’ involvement with a county they nominally owned. The club looked to Durham County Council for help, and negotiated two separate loans, in 2009 and 2013, totalling £4.3m. The council’s agreement, at the ECB’s behest last autumn, to convert most of these loans into preferential shares was instrumental in Durham staying afloat. They are now becoming a community interest company.

Harker and Leach robustly defend their decision to invest in the team. “We always took the view that we had to be successful at our core activity in order to promote the sport, the brand and the business,” said Harker. “That wasn’t a reckless decision, a case of chasing cricketing glory for the sake of it.”

Various attempts have been made (as per the original bid brochure) to develop the area around the Riverside. The latest, probably last, to founder was for a five-star hotel. Several backers were courted, but all declined, suggesting development may not have been commercially feasible.

Durham now find themselves in a more favourable financial position than at any time since the early days. But they may have to accept a lesser status, which will mean, for instance, nurturing players, only to see them leave. Two senior men, Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick, have gone to Surrey, and they had to fight to keep Keaton Jennings, the most recent Academy product to play for England. Harker foresees Durham possibly breaking even each year, but refuses to settle for second best on the field, or be prepared to lose the players they will still be expected to develop.

This is not necessarily the ECB’s view. “The definition of success used to be winning competitions,” said Hollins. “But my argument is that the role of the first-class county is a lot broader than that – it’s about participating and inspiring people to engage. This could become a genuine community club.” Which, of course, may be a brutally polite way of saying you should never expect to win anything ever again.

This piece first appeared in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2017. Read more essays online or buy your copy here.