For the summer months while we contemplate a period without Newcastle United ruining our weekends, Sam Dalling will be casting his gaze to the summer game and providing us with a weekly blog covering whatever comes into his head about cricket. We hope those who have an interest in cricket enjoy it as a diversion from our usual content and thank Sam for giving up his time putting it all together for us. 

Now that summer is properly upon us, the region’s stuttering football clubs must take a back seat. It’s time to focus squarely on Durham County Cricket Club. For amongst the Newcastle United and Mackem-based malaise, there is hope offered by the men in white.

It’s been a topsy-turvy decade for Durham. From basking in the glory of championship titles in ’08, ’09 and ’13, to the ignominy of relegation from the top tier in ‘16 on financial grounds. A devastating day for all concerned, the players having finished fourth in Division One that year, far closer to champions Middlesex (30-point gap) than bottom side Nottinghamshire (76-point gap).

The club’s treatment by the ECB was nowt short of disgraceful. Yes, a near £4 million aid package was agreed to keep Durham afloat, but at what cost? A heavy one: relegation; a 48-point deduction for the 2017 County Championship; further sanctions in the white ball competitions and a decreased salary cap between 2017 and 2020. Prize money was withheld and Chester-le-Street lost its right to host Test cricket.

And that inevitably led to an exodus of local talent. Scott Borthwick – whose departure had already been finalised – and Mark Stoneman headed to the capital. The pair had racked up more than 2,200 red-ball runs the previous summer. A year later Keaton Jennings and Graham Onions headed for Lancashire and the highly-rated Paul Coughlin departed.

But there’s a sense that now the tide has turned and is rushing inward. Borthwick – a title winner eight years ago – is back and as skipper. With him he brings infectious passion, infant-like enthusiasm and a giant dollop of talent.  Coughlin is also back in situ, Brydon Carse is bowling at the speed of sound, Alex Lees is churning out the runs and the club has been canny with its foreign recruitment.

David Beddingham was here on an ancestral visa last year, and the South African did enough to prove worthy of an overseas gig. The value in imports being available for the entire season should not be underestimated and no one has more than his 624 runs. New Zealand star Will Young made a pair of hundreds during his short early-season stint and now Cameron Bancroft has arrived, fresh from a stellar Sheffield Shield.

And then there’s Chris Rushworth. To describe him as spearheading the attack is not quite accurate; his bowling would barely trouble a motorway speed-gun. But he leads the bowling pack, his unwavering accuracy and ability to nip the ball both ways giving batters countrywide night tremors. He could, and should have played for England.

Instead, Rushworth will have to be content with being Durham’s all-time leading first-class wicket-taker.  Upon passing Onions’ tally of 527 a fortnight ago, he sank to his knees, the emotion of the occasion too much. This is a man with pride in his work, pride in his club, pride in the region.

It was moving to see him in an emotional post-play embrace with his biggest fan – dad – who was forced to watch on from the carpark because of the pandemic. The landmark was a huge moment on a journey that began in 2004 with solitary List-A game. Two years later he was released into to the relative wilderness of club cricket, before returning in a 2nd XI fixture in 2009 and picking up 10 wickets. Borthwick, Mark Wood and Ben Stokes all featured that day. Rushworth has barely skipped a beat since, and between 2012 and 2020 only nine men in the world snared more first-class victims. The blot on the copybook? He, along with Borthwick, are red and white.

Today Durham host reigning County Champions Essex. A positive result here will go a long way toward a top two finish, and with it an all-important spot in Division One for the second tranche of the season.

When the sides met in Chelmsford in April, Durham dominated the majority of the game, dismissing a strong Essex batting line-up for just 96.  Borthwick made his first hundred since returning and victory looked to be heading to the north east.

But as well as being packed with quality, Essex never know when they’re beaten. And in Simon Harmer they possess a match winner of rare class. Ultimately, it was the giant off-spinner who prevented the visitors reaching their 167-run victory target, collecting five wickets in 39 balls to finish with 10-136 in the match. It hurt but amidst the pain there was comfort: Durham could compete.

In the four games since, Worcestershire (258 runs) and Warwickshire (innings and 127 runs) have been swept aside at the Emirates Riverside, while Derbyshire were also outplayed but hung on for a draw. Rushworth has a good feeling: “If you speak to anyone playing this season who has been around during the troubled times, there’s a massive difference in feel around the group.

“Everyone is enjoying playing with each other. We are playing some great cricket. It feels like Durham of old. We always used to have a nice relaxed changing room with people just enjoying the company of one another and enjoy each other’s success. We have that back again this year.”

Durham has been a first-class county for less than 3 decades, yet already has a handful of titles.  There are many miles in the season yet, but maybe, just maybe, 2021 could be another historic year. It is the hope though, that kills us.

SAM DALLING