There can be no escaping the fact that 18 all out, in any cricketing context, is pretty disastrous. Unfortunately, such a fate befell Durham University – a team that holds a very special place in my heart – on the morning of Easter Sunday, the final day of their first-class fixture against Durham County Cricket Club at the Riverside Ground in Chester-le-Street.
In Baltic temperatures and conditions that the hosts’ head coach Geoff Cook understatedly labelled “excellent for bowling,” the students were dismantled by the seam-bowling trio of Graham Onions, Callum Thorp and Ben Stokes (who finished with scarcely credible figures of 2-9, 3-4 and 4-3 respectively). With all-rounder Luke Blackaby absent due to injury, they lasted only 101 deliveries.
Set a nominal target of 392, the MCCU side had equalled the tenth-lowest total in first-class cricket since 1900, crashing to a crushing defeat by 373 runs. Those, in all their gruesome gore, are the bare facts. Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of what can only be described as a battering, some searching questions seeped out of the woodwork.
Having played in five first-class games myself over three years in the Durham University set-up, my initial concerns were of an entirely on-field nature. Was the bowling really that good? Why did none of the batsmen chance their arm to boost the score closer to the realms of respectability? How must the lads be feeling now?
Thanks to the all-access environment of this digital age, the last of these was answered pretty quickly. Facebook statuses and Twitter updates relayed the inevitable – each player was utterly devastated about the performance.
That didn’t stop internet channels being filled up by monotonous rumble of off-field debate over whether the six MCC-funded University Centres of Excellence across the United Kingdom – Cambridge, Cardiff, Durham, Leeds, Loughborough and Oxford – should be afforded first-class status for three matches a year. Naturally, many onlookers threw their (often misinformed) oars into a saturated discussion.
For some, the time has evidently come to strip these early-season contests of their precious prefix. This would not be debilitating. The status of these encounters is largely irrelevant. What is imperative is that the fixtures remain. Graeme Fowler, Durham University’s director of cricket astutely articulated as much when speaking to George Dobell of ESPN Cricinfo earlier this week.
“At the time we started, I never thought we should have been given first-class status,” said Fowler, who was extremely influential in establishing the universities scheme just over a decade ago. “It just seemed like we were producing a rod for our own back to judge us by first-class results. That is not really what we are about.
“The problem is that if we lose the first-class status we may well lose the funding, too. I just hope that, because of one nightmare performance, people don't forget all the good things we have done for England cricket. Days like this don't help but they shouldn't obscure the bigger picture.”
The bigger picture, something that Fowler is rightly proud of, is very impressive. Almost one in five England-qualified county cricketers have passed through one of the six Centres, with Durham alone accounting for 8% of them. Alumni – Test captain Andrew Strauss among them – are prestigious and numerous. The system is working, which is why any snide comments, scathing critiques and manic cries to shelter students from county opposition over the past few days – most clearly stimulated by jealousy or pomposity – have irritated me.
For a start, the very same Durham personnel that were so ignominiously blown away four days ago batted brilliantly on the final day of their encounter with Middlesex at the start of this month, battling for 83 overs to reach 199-3 and secure a well-deserved draw.
Chris Jones and Seren Waters of the current XI are no strangers to the very highest level of the sport either; the former having appeared for his county, Somerset, in the Twenty20 Champions League in September, the latter representing Kenya in last spring’s ICC World Cup. It would not be at all surprising if one or two more – Rishabh Shah, a regular in the Essex second team, perhaps – dusted themselves off, learnt from the weekend and carved out successful professional careers. They have statistics on their side at least.
I will never forget the two first-class centuries that were scored by DUCC teammates during my time in the north-east – Paul Dixey’s 103 against Lancashire in 2009 and Greg Smith’s 114 during our clash with Nottinghamshire the next season. Nor will my recollection of being stood at short-leg while John Glover ripped out Durham’s top order to claim 5-38 at The Racecourse ever fade.
The three men mentioned above are now all owners of a country contract, which speaks volumes. However, there is another, more personal bonus. Quite simply, the thrill of witnessing your colleagues pitting their skills against the best and coming out on top is extremely special, more so because you are aware of just how hard they have worked to get there – Fowler’s regime is not one that breeds complacency or mollycoddles the weak-minded.
In the first term of the year, there is no cricket-specific training, with the onus solely on physical conditioning – early-morning running and weights in the gym four times each week. Before any wisecracks about the lack of nets being responsible for the Easter thrashing, it should be stressed that nothing creates squad camaraderie and togetherness quite like watching your mate vomit onto the side of an athletics track at 7.30 am on a freezing morning in November.
After Christmas, the balls come out (so to speak) and players are free to organise one-on-one sessions with former England opener Fowler, alongside four more slots of team training. It is an arduous schedule, and a degree must obviously be fitted in too, but you never lose sight of a very bright horizon.
When the season finally rolls around, the sense of anticipation is immense and, although it is a genuine privilege to be involved in the county fixtures, dwelling on the magnitude of the situation can be dangerous.
Once, having come in at seven against Nottinghamshire, I was joined at the crease by our left-arm seamer, who will remain firmly anonymous. It is probably unfair to tell you that he had recorded two ducks in his only previous first-class innings at that point, but I wouldn’t like to leave out information. Ryan Sidebottom also happened to be bowling with a brand new ball.
There was a bit of kidology, naturally. Sidebottom, who is quite burly and intimidating in the flesh, stared my teammate up and down for an agonising few seconds before walking back to the top of his mark. The 22-Test Yorkshireman then loped in and released a probing delivery just outside off-stump. In the rather surreal sequence of seconds that followed, my partner aimed an expansive drive, got a healthy edge and turned around just in time to watch Samit Patel grass the easiest of chances. We ran two. Our mild-mannered left-armer then played out the two remaining balls of the over and strolled into the middle of the wicket to meet me.
“Well played, mate. But what were you doing with that first ball?” I asked him, slightly concerned for his mental wellbeing, but sensing his immense relief and getting off the mark.
“Sorry,” came the reply. “It felt like a computer game seeing Sidebottom run in like that. Thought I’d just smash him through the covers!” Thankfully, the tears were out of my eyes before the beginning of the next over.
This last anecdote is immaterial, but it would be a great shame if future students were denied the chance to compete, maybe just for three days, on a level playing field with the professionals they aspire to be, regardless of the 'first-class' categorisation. Durham University welcome Northamptonshire to The Racecourse next Friday, by which time they will have learnt a great deal, both about the game they love and about themselves. Expect much better.