Durham put on brave face but are still haunted by last season’s nightmare | Ali Martin

Ali Martin at the Riverside
The Durham openers Stephen Cook, left, and Keaton Jennings walk out to bat next to fans in ‘It’s not cricket’ T-shirts. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

“Betrayed, cheated but not defeated” read a banner hung out at Riverside on Good Friday as Durham, 25 years to the day since their maiden first-class match, began life in Division Two of the County Championship with minus 48 against their name.

Along with this belligerent bunting, which also included the none too cryptic acronym FTECB, was a local support that swelled to 2,190, among whom a number, including the lady who runs the second-hand bookshop on site, wore T-shirts adorned with the words: “ECB, It’s Not Cricket”.

Out in the middle, where grass might easily have stood three feet high behind locked gates had the governing body not stepped in last autumn with its £3.8m bailout, the fightback began. But under largely overcast skies that saw the floodlights on all day, Durham’s batsmen could not quite muster the fairytale start.

Nottinghamshire, a side relegated last summer for cricketing reasons rather than financial, were always going to prove the toughest of first opponents even with Stuart Broad told to take a blow one match into the season. Jake Ball, James Pattinson, Harry Gurney and Luke Fletcher all exploited a juicy April strip to see the home side 162 all out by 3.10pm.

Stumps were detonated, balls feathered behind and were it not for some zesty lower order swish from their wicket-keeper, Stuart Poynter, who ramped and flicked his way to 65 from 59 balls, it could have been messy. The brawny Pattinson, tuning up for an Ashes assault against England later this year, was particularly spiteful in his three for 43.

Durham roared back with Chris Rushworth and Graham Onions reducing Notts to seven for three only for Samit Patel (43 not out) and Michael Lumb to dig in for stand of 85 that was ended in a late five over burst – following an hour and 20 minutes of bad light – when Mark Wood pinned the latter lbw for 33. Notts closed on 96 for four, Durham notably moved to minus 47 points.

The earlier ruthlessness of the Notts attack could never match that of the ECB in the eyes of the home support, of course, with points deductions in all three competitions and the loss of Test status still too painful a pay-off for the rescue package put together along with the local council, one that prevented the club from going bust amid unsustainable, if not uncommon, debts of £7.5m.

The reasons behind this have been well documented, from the failure to turn Test cricket into a money-making pursuit in the north-east at an ill-judged location given the ECB’s near £1m staging fees and the region’s economic struggle in times of government-driven austerity, to the over-stretching of a playing budget whereby the salary cap was breached in 2012. Titles in 2008, 2009 and 2013 and a raft of England players suggested the project was thriving on the field but beneath the surface the legs paddled to stay afloat.

The most recent edition of Wisden has shone a torch on how events spiralled towards their final phase last year, questioning whether Durham’s fate had in fact been decided well before the end of the season and thus the county championship had been brought into disrepute. It is a claim Gordon Hollins, the chief operating officer at the ECB, rejects vehemently.

“We were working with Durham and the council all summer to come up with the solution in the event of them needing one. The club had been on the market and, had a buyer been found, cricket’s money wouldn’t have been needed,” Hollins, who worked as Durham’s commercial director until 2007, told the Guardian.

“We wouldn’t step in while they were still privately owned [by two Indian businessmen] and this didn’t change until September. No decision was made until 28 September when it became clear it was. It’s factually wrong to say any decisions were taken before then.”

Two weeks before this day of reckoning Durham’s players, for all the talk of off-field problems, were buzzing. After beating Surrey in a 21-run thriller at the Riverside, a squad proudly made up of 75% home-grown talent was in the dressing room guzzling beers and pizza, and singing the team song, Blaydon Races, as they celebrated top-flight survival once more - the longest standing top-flight side – before going on to finish fourth.

The bombshell of relegation and deductions that followed rocked the squad. Mark Wood, their effervescent fast bowler who broke his fragile ankle in the Surrey win, recalls the flurry of messages on their WhatsApp – including “a few choice northern words” – but also the resolve to crack on in 2017 knowing that, by agreeing to the punishment in exchange for staying afloat, little could be done.

“Everyone was shocked but then it was quickly a realisation of right, let’s show the north-east spirit and values we always carry of hard work, honesty and trusting each other,” said Wood. “We need to be brave now to try and get results. We have a chance to make it a special year but we have to use the fire from last year. And in tight situations we will draw on this.”

If the team are now looking ahead, then off the field there are still those attempting to get the Championship deduction scrubbed off. A petition of nearly 2,000 signatures was handed into the ECB offices a fortnight ago while Kevan Jones, the MP for North Durham, also tabled a parliamentary debate last December in which he called on the ECB to go public with how relegation and the minus 48 were calculated, pointing out it differed from the 50-point penalty that should follow insolvency as per the governing body’s regulations.

Hollins insists their regulations did not apply in Durham’s case as the board had not sat back and allowed insolvency to follow but instead moved to prevent it with a £2m payment and a £1.8m loan. By diverting funds from elsewhere in the game to do this the ECB felt it had to set a deterrent that was harsh beyond that which would meet a club simply reborn after external help but not arithmetically insurmountable either.

Hollins says: “We had to consider what was fair to other counties. It was felt this was unprecedented and there needed to be off-field changes to the board, controls over the wage bill and appropriate playing sanctions.

“In terms of the 48 points, we asked ourselves what level of sanction would be challenging for Durham to get back up but not impossible, so to retain their ambition. An example, in a different competition, was that Yorkshire did not win any their first five T20 games and still made the knockouts. We felt the equivalent of two [championship] wins would make promotion challenging but not impossible.

“Some have said it’s too harsh but there are others who have said it’s not harsh enough. It wasn’t meant to be soft because we don’t want it repeated. It is a clear disincentive. But we have maintained first-class cricket in the north-east.”

That last point is something not lost on those at the club and where one might expect to find despondency there is positivity. The membership is up for the first time in eight years and Sir Ian Botham, who now heads up the new community interest company in which the council is the majority shareholder, having converted £3.7m in loans, is talking up a promotion challenge.

That the bullish Botham, who will be at the ground on Sunday but largely a chairman at the end of a phone line, is in place is another line of inquiry for Jones, with the MP questioning whether the ECB has simply placed its own man in the club in order that the points deduction is not questioned. Not so, says Hollins.

“[Botham] made it known he was interested in helping as he was aware of the problem and he lives in the area. We held discussions – that is not out of the norm with prospective chairmen – and encouraged him. His profile, his positivity, his ability to inspire and enthuse is just what cricket in the north-east needs. He’s nobody’s man other than his own and, if you say he’s the ECB’s man, I’d suggest you don’t do so within arm’s reach of him.”

Paul Collingwood, the club captain, adds: “Beefy doesn’t have a negative thought in his body but I’m pretty realistic. We will have to have everything going our way, guys in top form, guys who have seasons of their lives. Weather will have to be kind. It will all have to go our way to drag back two massive wins.”

Day one of this almighty challenge, where the ball dominated bat and only Poynter’s impish innings staved off the flattest of starts, may not have quite met this criterion but Durham, the county that produces such wonderful cricketers, are still alive and kicking.

Durham’s ups and downs

23 May 1882 Durham CCC formed with their first match the following month a four-wicket win over Northumberland in Sunderland. Three years later they join the Minor Counties Championship. By 1984 have won it a then record-equalling ninth time.

6 December 1991 Awarded first-class status and two years later, having recruited Ian Botham and Dean Jones, play maiden first-class match – a draw at Oxford University.

18 May 1995 The newly built Riverside ground hosts maiden first-class game as Warwickshire beat Durham. Four years later, in its maiden international, Pakistan beat Scotland in the World Cup.

15 July 2000 England play at the Riverside for first time, beating West Indies by 10 wickets in ODI watched by sell-out 15,000 crowd. The first of six Tests comes three years later with an innings victory over Zimbabwe.

8 August 2002 Steve Harmison is the club’s first academy graduate to play Test cricket for England, six years after Sunderland’s Simon Brown became the first locally born player to be capped.

25 August 2004 An EGM votes in favour of becoming a limited company. Six years later two Indian businessmen – Gautam and Hiren Radia – own a 90% share of the club .

27 September 2008 Durham win their first County Championship after beating Kent at Canterbury, with two more following in 2009 and 2013.

7 September 2012 Durham breach the salary cap and begin the following season on minus 2.5 points in the championship and a quarter of a point docked in the one-day and Twenty20 competitions.

12 August 2013 England secure Ashes with 74-run win in Chester-le-Street’s first Australia Test.

3 October 2016 Durham relegated from First Division, docked 48 points, four for the Twenty20 Cup and two in the One-Day Cup after £3.8m bailout by ECB amid debts of £7.5m. Salary cap imposed, prize money withheld and Test status taken away. Ian Botham becomes chairman of community interest company; the council, owed £3.7m, is majority shareholder.

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