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The Ashes at Chester-le-Street - 'Who'd a' thought it'
THE talk over lunch in hospitality resembled the Four Yorkshiremen sketch featuring Monty Python members and Marty Feldman: “Who’d a’ thought 40 years ago we’d be sitting here drinking Chateau le Chasselais.”
Instead of progressing to “there wer’ 38 of us living in hole in t’road” we marvelled at the astonishing sight of an Ashes Test being played where dog walkers used to take their exercise on the banks of the Wear.
When Durham identified this site as the perfect base for their first-class future they commissioned a promotional video fronted by ex-England batsman Tom Graveney, who was born at Riding Mill, near Hexham.
That was in 1990 and when the ground’s inaugural Test against Zimbabwe was staged ten years ago Graveney admitted that never in his wildest dreams did he believe it would actually happen.
Zimbabwe, then Bangladesh, then a weak West Indies side – they were all mere mackerel on chilly May days providing the appetisers ahead of the high summer visit of the Great White Shark. If there was hype surrounding those matches it has been dwarfed by the Ashes. This is the real deal.
It was slightly depressing to encounter a ticket tout outside the ground and Graham Onions’ mum was not impressed by his omission from the side. “What can I say?” she said. “He’s very frustrated.”
Spirits were rapidly lifted, however, by the spine-tingling moment when the players walked out to the accompaniment of Jerusalem. They were indeed walking upon England’s green and pleasant land with the ground looking magnificent, enhanced by the new 5,000-seat stand in front of Lumley Castle.
To think that 23 years ago famous botanist David Bellamy got involved in a campaign to stop it happening.
All the hospitality boxes on the top deck of the pavilion had long been sold out and Marston’s, the official suppliers of alcohol to Durham, were happy to take one of 18 tables of ten in a marquee.
The Burton-based brewery are halfway through a ten-year deal with the club and on the basis of a capacity crowd of 17,500 people attending over the first three days they expect to sell around 220,000 pints of beer and lager in that time.
They work on the basis of 4.7 pints per person and at £4.20 a pint the profit for both parties is considerable.
Of course, what the club and the brewery would really like is for the match to go into the fifth day with sufficient play left to attract another big crowd. It happened in the first Test at Trent Bridge, when the hot weather helped the beer sales and the extra revenue was estimated at £150,000.
Martson’s Paul Woodmansey said: “When we struck the deal with Durham we expected there would be an Ashes Test here within ten years.
“But we accept that you get what you get and there are other occasions such as a Friday night Twenty20 match against Yorkshire which are brilliant for beer sales.
“It’s written into the deal for us to be able to provide hospitality. Normally we are in a box but we told the club if they had the opportunity to sell the box at £250 a head, or whatever, we’d be happy to go in the marquee.”
Hospitality packages were, in fact, priced at up to £375 a head, including the £80 match ticket, but Woodmansey pointed out: “That’s cheap compared with Formula One, where it can cost £2,500.”
Marston’s also supply several cricket clubs within the county, including Darlington, whose president, John Edwardson, was among the guests yesterday.
He watched the action avidly, whereas some didn’t see a ball bowled, unless it was on one of the TV screens in the marquee.
Some probably thought Hot Spot was a reference to erogenous zones rather than the technology which ruled that Joe Root had been caught behind.
Anyone attending cricket for the first time might not have been impressed by the sight of Alastair Cook playing no stroke to the first 11 balls bowled by Ryan Harris.
There was an ironic cheer when he was obliged to play a forward defensive stroke to the 12th, but the first real noise of the day came from the dumping of empty bottles. And that was only 15 minutes after the start.
With no Onions in the England team, the headline writers would have to have their fun with Australia’s newcomer, Jackson Bird.
In fact, the first big cheer of the day came when Bird swooped round the boundary to make a superb stop – proof of the crowd’s appreciation, if not their impartiality.
Bird bowled an excellent opening spell, even if his long run-up did prompt one observer to say: “I don’t go that far on my holidays.”
It was sunny initially, but then the clouds came over so it was impossible to tell whether the sun was over the yardarm at noon.
The players had a drinks break then, however, and according to the welcome letter sent to hospitality guests that was also the time for canapés to be served.
Unfortunately, there had been a misunderstanding and there were no canapés, otherwise the in-house caterers did a brilliant job, especially considering there had been a power cut the previous evening.
The lunch menu contained the usual pretentious nonsense such as “roast potatoes with rock salt, rosemary and olive oil.” Fragrant vegetable rice was also available and starters included escabeche with prawns (apparently it’s a Mediterranean dish of poached and fried fish).
We could only reiterate: “who’d a’ thought it”. But whatever it was dressed up as on the menu, the good, wholesome food helped to make it an unforgettable day.
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