ON Monday, The Northern Echo threw its weight behind First Class Futures, Durham County Cricket Club’s campaign to build a permanent home for the club’s academy at a new nursery ground adjacent to Durham Emirates ICG in Chester-le-Street.
As you can imagine, we get asked to support a wide range of fundraising initiatives, and while we try to do what we can, it’s impossible to actively promote everything that is mentioned to us.
But when Durham’s plan was first mooted, and the potential impact of a North-East centre for cricketing excellence became clear, it was immediately obvious that it merited our backing.
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In the last decade, it is hard to think of a sporting institution that has done more for North-East youngsters than Durham CCC.
At the very top of the tree, the club has nurtured the likes of Paul Collingwood, Steve Harmison, Graham Onions and Ben Stokes, and transformed them from promising youngsters into seasoned internationals plying their trade at the very pinnacle of the game.
The club’s academy, rightly renowned as one of the most successful in England, has produced a succession of players who have enabled Durham to throw off their tag of serial underachievers to become three-time county champions, as well as winners of the Friends Provident Trophy and Pro40 League. Those successes have brought a great deal of pride and joy to the region’s cricketing enthusiasts.
Just as importantly, if a little less high-profile, Durham’s academy has also helped develop a host of cricketers who, while not quite making it at the very highest level, are now staples of the local club scene.
Gary Pratt: briefly of England, now opening the batting with Richmondshire. Gary Scott: one of the youngest players to make it into Durham’s first team, now a key part of the set-up at Hetton Lyons. James Lowe: played nine first-class matches for Durham between 2003-06, now playing for Middlesbrough and working in youth development.
Supporting Durham’s academy is not just about supporting the next England international, it is about shoring up the foundations of the future of North-East cricket at all levels.
“When we started the academy, we wanted to create a pathway that could take talented junior cricketers into the professional ranks and then hopefully on to international honours,” said director of cricket Geoff Cook. “We didn’t want to see what had happened in the past, with players having to leave the region to get on with their career.
“We’re all very proud that that’s worked. We’ve seen North-East cricketers playing key roles in the England team, and that’s fed in to making Durham successful too.
“But as the academy has developed, so its aims and ambitions have broadened. As the ECB has started to take more of an interest in all the academies, and provided some central funding to help drive up standards, so the focus has shifted away from a purely cricketing base towards providing a much broader education and development.
“As an academy, we strive to produce the best cricketers. But not everyone can be an England Test player, and for those who don’t quite make it that far, we hope to provide a decent start to whatever career they go on to pursue.”
So far, so positive. But while Durham’s academy has achieved great things since it was founded in 1996, it has gradually outgrown its facilities and infrastructure.
The academy side, not to mention the second XI, women’s team and age-group sides ranging from under-9s to under-17s, all rely on the goodwill of club sides from around the county just to be able to stage training sessions and games.
Practice sessions are squeezed in around the requirements of the first team, with a lack of indoor facilities proving particularly problematic when the English summertime decides to bare its teeth.
Clearly, the situation is far from ideal, but it didn’t matter quite so much in the past when every other county was experiencing similar issues and funding for academies was still relatively low down the priority list.
Now, all of Durham’s rivals have upped their game significantly, and unlike in football, there are no restrictions on the ability of clubs to recruit talented young players from other parts of the country.
Today, Durham risk losing their best young players to richer clubs in the south unless they can continue to offer high-class facilities and training.
That is where the new academy base will come in. Planned for land that has already been identified, the proposed centre of excellence will house a professional standard pitch as well as grass and artificial practice nets and a specialist fielding area.
It would be the envy of just about every other county side in the country, and should help ensure the best North-East talent remains in the region to represent Durham in the future.
“When Durham became a first-class county, the aim was always to give North-East youngsters an opportunity to make at it the very highest level with their local side,” said Cook. “That was the raison d’etre for the academy, and remains as relevant today as it ever was.
“We’ve had some success in that sphere, but unless we continue to move forward, we run the very real risk of turning the clock back 20 years to a time when all the best North-East players headed out of the region to make their name.
“After everything we’ve done, it would be a crying shame to go backwards. That’s why First Class Futures is so important and why we feel it’s an initiative worthy of the region’s support.”