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County Championship 2023

‘You need the players to be able to do what we’ve done’ – Inside Durham’s County Championship resurgence

Durham Cricket County Championship, the inside story of the club's resurgence
by Katya Witney 5 minute read

Durham are on the brink of wrapping up promotion to Division One of the County Championship for the first time since 2016. This is the inside story of their resurgence, from the bottom half of the table to clinical trailblazers.

“The pride of representing the North East is something else,” says Scott Borthwick, as it tips down with rain outside his window. “You can’t actually describe it until you live here I guess, but the overseas players always want to come back. It’s a really special place.”

The strong regional pull at Durham is unlike anywhere else in the country. Tucked away and geographically out of reach to many in the rest of the country, it’s honed and provided a base to many current and past greats. But, since the events of 2016, the county has struggled outside of top-division first-class cricket.


That year strikes a painful chord with Durham loyalists. The penalties imposed by the ECB for being unable to meet their debts were devastating, and objectively harsh. Durham finished fourth that year in the County Championship but were relegated, handed a 48-point penalty for the following season, and given a revised salary cap which stood until 2020. The result was an exodus of players and years in the peripheral wilderness.

Alongside some of their brightest sparks being consumed by England duties, Durham have spent the last six years struggling to consistently finish in the middle of the Division Two table. Last year, their 14 matches produced three wins, finishing sixth in the eight-team league. That stagnation of progress meant that, in 2022, the Riverside was little closer to displaying new silverware than it was in the immediate aftermath of the ECB’s intervention.

But, within a few months of the end last season, everything changed.


Durham have dominated Division Two of the County Championship this year. With three games to go, they sit 40 points clear at the top of the table, promotion all but sealed by the end of July. And they’ve done it by playing high-pace, high-octane cricket, with bold declarations, skyrocketing run rates, and attacking bowling all features of their campaign.

“At Durham, we try to balance fearlessness vs recklessness,” says head coach Ryan Campbell. “Get that balance right and you can score fast, and we want to score as fast as we can.”

Durham’s new philosophy will, of course, sound familiar to followers of the England men’s Test team. But while it’s not a coincidence Durham’s transformation mirrors that overseen by their own Ben Stokes, it was the arrival of Campbell that ignited their change in fortunes.

Fresh from six years as head coach of the Netherlands, Campbell arrived at the Riverside in December last year ready for a new challenge. Watching England in 2022, he saw a philosophy that carried echoes of his playing career in a golden era for Western Australia, a common-sense vision of finding a way to win while entertaining. Applying it to Durham – like England, starved of success and ready for a revolution – was the obvious move.

“The way we were brought up in Australia, I hate to say in my time, but we were lucky enough to play in an era where you had to score fast,” he tells Wisden.com. “My academy coach was Rod Marsh and he drove into us that, as batters, we needed to entertain people and the only way you can win a four-day game of cricket is to take 20 wickets.

“That’s the way the Aussies have played all along. ‘Bazball’, whatever you want to call it, what England have done is absolutely supercharged that theory and it’s fantastic.”

Durham got a taste of how Campbell’s style could work before their County Championship campaign started. “We had six preseason games in Zimbabwe and we won them all,” says Borthwick. “We didn’t worry about bowling workloads and things like that, we just tried to win. The positive way of thinking is, how can we possibly win in this situation?”

And yet, as stark as the results have been, Durham’s new way took time to bed in. Their opening game ended in a two-wicket defeat. Despite putting up 376 in 80 overs in the first innings, a collapse for 150 let Sussex back in. The issue, Campbell says, was not going hard enough.

“We actually went into our shell in that second innings because we lost wickets,” he explains. “Once you do go back into that shell and aren’t looking to score, you find that you get stuck on the crease and you actually don’t bat as well and as freely. You don’t get into the right positions to let balls go. That was a great learning experience for us because we had that game on toast, and we messed it up in 30 or 40 minutes of cricket.”

Since then, Durham have been unstoppable, with a run of five wins in eight games only halted by a pair of rain-affected draws. And yet their season has not been without jeopardy. In their second game, they set Worcestershire an achievable 315 to win in 72 overs. Durham risked two defeats from two, and a place at the foot of the table. They were rewarded with a first win of the season. “That’s quite a generous declaration,” says Borthwick. “If two good players get in and score quickly then they can win that game. But because we had that positive mindset and went into the field hunting wickets and desperate to win, we got our rewards for being brave. Long may it continue because we’re playing really good cricket.

“Ryan’s mindset is, he wants the game to move forward. He wants us to be positive, loads of times he’s nudging me wanting to declare.

“He used to hate the old school county cricket where you play for draws and I think the change in the points as well, going from eight points for a draw to five has changed a lot of people’s mindset. Teams are starting to dangle a carrot a bit and try to win.”

A one-wicket win against Yorkshire was a heart-stopper, with a 71-run ninth-wicket stand resurrecting Durham before ending two short of victory, and serves as further reward for the risks taken earlier: by experiencing high-pressure situations, they were more prepared when the next one came. It also demonstrated how they have refined their approach, with that crucial rearguard occupying almost 30 overs as Ben Raine and Matthew Potts dug in.

This has been another feature of Durham’s campaign, with the all-out attack refined, moments picked and bowlers targeted. A double-century stand between Robinson and Graham Clark and Leicestershire is the perfect example. They were joined at a respectable but not yet dominant 221-4, and took their time to get set, adding a sedate 59 runs in 21 overs. Three fours in three balls from Clark signalled a change in intent, and the next 23 overs saw 137 runs racked up.

“You have to put bowlers under pressure and recognise the moment to do it,” Robinson explains. “Say if you fancy a bowler and think right, I can take him here. For example, against Leicestershire, the Kookaburra ball was pretty soft and it was a pretty flat pitch. But they were just bowling straight and setting straight fields so it was hard to score. But when the new ball came, we probably went to eight an over.

“So actually you make up for going at two or three an over by going at eight in a different time in the game. It’s about absorbing pressure when it’s not easy, and then once you get that foothold you can push back.”

The stats of Durham’s campaign so far make for some reading. Their average run rate this season is 4.35 runs an over, while, since the opening game of the season, they have only been bowled out for under 400 three times in 17 innings. Individually, six of their players have averages above fifty this season, and only one in that group has scored at a strike rate of less than 70. “A lot of teams come and play us,” Robinson says, “and, because they’ve seen us scoring at four or five an over before you even start the game they feel like they’re on the back foot a little bit.”


“You need the players to be able to do what we’ve done,” says Campbell, and while the likes of Alex Lees and Potts, on the fringes of England selection, have been standouts, Durham’s has been a group effort. It’s a simple statement from Campbell, but a revealing one, and as much as Durham’s turnaround has been about their gameplan, it’s also about recruitment.

Robinson, tempted away from Kent who found themselves with a surfeit of explosive wicketkeeper-batters, has been the standout. He has 764 runs with three centuries, the latest an unbeaten 167, and he’s scored at a strike rate of 85.45 – the highest of anyone with more than 100 runs in Division Two. He’s long been highly rated, but the scale of his improvement is remarkable: in 20 innings last year Robinson made 497 runs at 27.61 without a century.

“It’s about being positive and making the most of your ability,” he explains. “The stats on Ben Duckett leaving barely any balls are very similar to mine, I don’t leave many balls.”

Robinson might well fit into the Bazball mould, and the messages from the man who matters most are encouraging. “Stokesy speaks to Scotty Borthwick all the time and knows how we’re going about it,” says Campbell. “I’m hoping the feedback to him has been very positive. He loves the way we play. The facts are that he’s sending messages all the time keeping an eye on our scoring rates and saying we’re probably the one team that has got it right this year in county cricket.”

Durham deserve credit for recognising a player with potential, and cultivating the environment for him to flourish. If that’s the classic tale of good recruitment, then Durham’s spin policy shows a team ready to get creative off the field as well as on it. Despite Chester-le-Street’s reputation as a seamers’ paradise – Raine, top of the wicket charts with five four-wicket hauls, has been vital – Campbell was adamant that a Test-class slow bowler was key.

“When I first had my conversations with Marcus (North, Durham director of cricket) I said that I really needed a spinner,” Campbell says. “He laughed at me because he thought the numbers wouldn’t work out for that at the Riverside. But we investigated and we spoke about it at length.

“We’re both from Perth which is renowned as one of the fastest wickets in the world and people rave about fast bowlers but the facts are, we never played a game without a spinner. We always understood how important a quality spinner would be to make sure that our fast bowlers got their rest and they weren’t doing the donkey work.”

Ajaz Patel, Matt Kuhnemann and Matt Parkinson have all been on Durham’s books this season, the club striking the balance between top-rated players with a point to prove, allowing them to keep their chequebooks balanced.

“If there’s an option to go and get a Test spinner, or someone who is a very good as a spinner, that’s always the option to go with,” says Borthwick. “It was the final piece in the jigsaw to what was a very good attack. When you know you’ve got a really good spinner, you can use them in different roles… so it was always the case of trying to get them.”

Against Worcestershire in April, Kuhnemann took a final-innings five-for which secured a tight win. At that point, other specialist spinners on the county circuit were struggling to get regular spots in starting XIs, let alone bowl match-winning spells.

And if that speaks to a lack of depth in the English first-class spin ranks, Durham have moved quickly to secure the services of Leicestershire’s Callum Parkinson, one of the best domestic finger-spinners in the land, for next year’s (almost certain) Division One campaign. This is a long-term project, and Durham are only at the start.

“Every side has to find a way to win games of cricket,” says Campbell. “Within the squad that we have, this is the way we’re going to go about it… Are we perfect? No, we’re far from it. But I think this group of players is well on their way to achieving something special.”

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