It was the culmination of everything the fathers of First-Class cricket in the North East dreamed of, the last item ticked off a fanciful bucket list.
Twenty-one years after taking their seat at county cricket’s top table, Durham hosted an Ashes Test.
After winning the County Championship, producing the world’s No.1 bowler and an England captain, hosting World Cup, limited-overs and Test cricket, England and Australia battled for the iconic urn in Durham.
Four days of titanic cricket, impossible to second-guess, were played to sold-out and raucous crowds.
Just two overs were lost to rain, a couple more to bad light. Dave Measor’s pitch drew plaudits for producing such exciting fare. Oh, and England won the series.
As the players nursed hangovers yesterday morning, Durham’s hierarchy were plotting the future.
“We can’t be standing still,” says David Harker. “We need to go from here and really cement our position.” In the sometimes staid world of county cricket, Durham really are dynamos. Group chief executive Harker has ambitious plans for a nursery ground at their Chester-le-Street home, and is looking into permanent floodlights and a “tweaked” coaching structure.
First-Class Futures, launched at the weekend, is intended to help the community as well as the club, broadening participation and extending their foundation’s ‘Learning Beyond the Boundaries’ programme.
“If you look at all the things the club has achieved, in many ways the thing we’re most proud of is the quality of our academy and the people who’ve come out of it,” says Harker.
“But we’ve become victims of our success. Cricket’s never been so popular up here, but it means the teams are getting squeezed.
“Our youth squads, the women’s and girls’ teams can’t get on club grounds, and the only time they get on grass is for competitive games.
“We’d like to see more access to quality training facilities for practice, preparation and learning about the game.
“We decided to develop our own nursery ground on this site. At one end it could be laying a couple of artificial pitches, to a square and a pavilion. It’s something we can build up over time.”
It all sounds great, but 2013 has been a year of cost-cutting at Chester-le-Street. The team had to do without the overseas player it wanted, and long-held plans for a new stand were scaled down. Building a hotel remains in limbo. Raising ï¿½1m in 2013-14 to fund this project sounds ambitious.
“When money is tight you tend to concentrate on the essentials and don’t deal with the future unless it’s urgent,” Harker says.
“This Test match has reminded us of what’s important. Developing cricketers is why we started and we’ve probably come full circle. In this Ashes year we want to reinvest in developing talent.
“We believe it’s a good story, a worthwhile project. We would never have achieved First-Class status without the region’s businesses getting behind us, so it’s very much in their hands now.
“We hope people will have read about the Ashes and seen what we’ve done and what we’re trying to achieve. We’ve always been a region that tries to look after its own. This encourages that.
“We believe it may tick some boxes with the ECB and Sport England, but this is an idea we’ve had in germination for some time. We thought if we were ever going to do this, now is the time, so we want to see what the response is.”
There is more to First-Class Futures than its main and very laudable goals. In the fight to host the very best international cricket, Durham have one hand behind their back. The next home Ashes series will avoid the north altogether.
The reasons are depressingly obvious. In London in particular, counties can charge ticket prices those further north could never contemplate.
At ï¿½80 a day, fourth Test seats were extremely steep, but with the smallest capacity – along with Trent Bridge – of any 2013 Ashes venues, Durham felt they had little choice. The four days gave excuses to those who would rather keep Test cricket away from its most northerly ground, with a few hundred empty seats for the final day and bad light interrupting two others.
Harker acknowledges: “Floodlights were always kind of part of our intentions and over the last few years they’ve become increasingly essential. “In Twenty20 next year most of the games will be played on a Friday evening (spread across the season, not squeezed into the height of summer) and it makes more sense to start at 7 o’clock than half past five. You can only do that if you’ve got floodlights.
“Plus there’s a World Cup coming to England in 2019 and if we do not have lights we will not be entitled to stage a game. We saw the Test curtailed briefly on Saturday and Sunday because of bad light, so they’re very much part of our plans.”
As usual, the schedulers gave Durham a raw deal. Normally only handed Tests during the most inclement part of the summer, this year they got the only Ashes Test to start on a Friday. “If the game had started on a Thursday, I think day four would have been sold out,” Harker argues.
“The ECB are getting their heads around where we go from here as regards bidding for games. They recognise the way they’ve been doing it isn’t quite working and wasn’t acceptable. We’re making the case that to have a geographical spread of games is genuinely important.
“We can’t compete with some counties in terms of what we can generate but the other things we do are important and another reason to support us with international cricket.”