Dawning of a new era with Test cricket at Riverside

Ten years ago Durham became the first addition to England’s Test circuit for over a century. Stuart Rayner talks to the forgotten hero of a historic occasion

England fielding against Zimbabwe during the second day of the Test match at the Riverside in 2003

Friday, August 9, will be a landmark day for North East sport. Weather permitting, at 11am Ashes cricket will be played here for the first time.

For those who worked so tirelessly to put Durham on the cricket map, it will be yet another achievement to celebrate. Twenty-one years after joining First-Class cricket, it is perhaps the last item on the “bucket list” they started with.

Ten years ago came a less glamorous but much more significant milestone as Chester-le-Street’s Riverside hosted England v Zimbabwe.

As Test matches go it was a non-contest, over in three days and as one-sided as the game at Lord’s a fortnight earlier. But it was the first time in 101 years five-day cricket had been played at a new English venue. “You could tell what a big deal it was,” says Anthony McGrath, part of England’s team that week.

“Durham were the last county to come into First-Class cricket, so getting a new ground and all the hard work that goes with that behind the scenes was paying off.

“It’s a fantastic location and a great club, so for them to get a Test was brilliant.

“It was good to be there for that occasion and everyone there really enjoyed it.”

McGrath was one of those for whom the game carried huge significance.

While it was little more than a glorified warm-up for the upcoming South Africa series, that presented opportunities.

McGrath made his Test debut a fortnight earlier in place of the injured Andrew Flintoff, as Richard Johnson did at Chester-le-Street deputising for Matthew Hoggard. An exciting young talent named Stephen Harmison was looking to establish himself in his seventh Test appearance.

A half-centurion at Lord’s – he also took 3-16 – Yorkshireman McGrath repeated the feat to top score at the Riverside. He needed to. As The Journal noted, “McGrath is widely expected to be bundled straight back on to the county circuit when Andrew Flintoff regains full fitness.”

McGrath reflects: “It’s not easy to fill in for Fred! At the time it was a little bit unfair because I was coming in as an all-rounder and I’ve never really been one of them. I was a batter who bowled a little bit.

“I was batting at seven, but the lads knew I wasn’t coming in as a replacement for Fred. I was coming in because he was injured and we decided to play an extra batter really.

“That’s just how it is sometimes, people kind of make up their own stories.

“I was just delighted to be playing. Every time you play for England it’s a fantastic honour.

“To be honest, I don’t think taking three wickets at Lord’s really helped! I’ve always enjoyed bowling, but I was predominantly a batsman and I managed to get runs in both Tests.

“I’d done well in the first Test and I wanted to follow it up. I knew I was in decent form, so as a batsman you always want to score runs and if you can, get a century.

“That was at the forefront of my mind and I was looking a little bit further ahead at South Africa, wanting to try and get a position in that series.

“I always seemed to do well at the Riverside. We’d won at Lord’s, so that was a nice start to the summer. We won comfortably at the Riverside and I managed to get a few as well, so it was a good few days.”

On the field at least, the first morning did little to endear England to their new surroundings. There was none of the dangerously unpredictable bounce that was a feature of the pitch as it bedded down in the early years, but Nasser Hussain might have regretted batting first when he was fifth out with 156 on the board.

It took McGrath and Alec Stewart to steady the ship.

“Zimbabwe got us off to a bit of a slow start,” McGrath recalls. “There was a bit of mizzle around and the ball moved about.

“Heath Streak bowled really well and we’d lost a few wickets. I had a decent partnership with Alec Stewart and when we bowled we got wickets early and won quite comfortably in the end.

“Steve (Harmison) got wickets in the second innings (4-55).

“Zimbabwe had a decent team back then and a good attack in particular. You had to be pretty watchful on that first morning because people who’ve watched cricket at the Riverside, back then it used to do a bit, especially on the first morning.

“It was a Test, but once we got in front, I think we were always going to win.”

McGrath’s 81 earned him his place in the South Africa series, as a specialist batsman rather than bits-and-pieces player. But it would be short-lived.

After two games, McGrath was dropped, never to play Test cricket again. Averaging 40 with the bat and 14 with the ball, he can count himself hard done-by.

“I was disappointed, if I’m honest,” he says. “I thought it was a little bit unfair. Other players have probably played for longer with worse stats than I had.

“But if someone had offered me four Tests or none, you’d take four Tests.”

For McGrath it may have been a false dawn, but for the Riverside it was the start of something special.

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David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
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Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer