Ian Botham wants to be the spark that helps relight Durham’s fire | Ali Martin

Riverside old boy keen to provide the jolt that helps keep his final county, the three-times champions, in the public consciousness

Durham issued a statement of gratitude on Tuesday afternoon for a landslide of support from the wider cricketing family following their relegation to Division Two in exchange for a £3.8m bailout, describing the response over the previous 24 hours as “beyond comprehension”.

The news that the County Championship’s most northerly club will, for reasons beyond their on-field performance, start the 2017 season at the bottom of the pile with a 48‑point deficit certainly shocked all who heard it on Monday. Football, the north-east’s first love, is well used to such scenarios. But cricket? The summer sport has never before witnessed such a public defenestration.

And yet here we are, with Durham’s guts opened up on the table for all to see after a £7.5m debt became completely unserviceable. It meant the England and Wales Cricket Board had to both rescue them financially and deliver a punishment that will leave others in no uncertain terms as to their fate should they too use the governing body as the “bank of last resort”.

At a time of raw emotions following this unprecedented and frankly brutal punishment, countless questions hang in the air. Some concern the recent pasts of counties such as Yorkshire, Hampshire, Glamorgan and Warwickshire, who are among those similarly indebted – more so, in fact, than Durham – but who have found other means to service their liabilities (a trust fund set up by the ECB chairman, Colin Graves, in the case of Yorkshire) or favourable arrangements with their councils.

Were Durham simply the victims of a system that pitted counties against each other in the battle to host international cricket, only to fall foul of the debt that reaching that promised land produced? Or did their administration lose the plot but plough on regardless in hope rather than expectation, with heads firmly in the sand until the situation was irreversible?

Some believe Durham were led down this road in a Machiavellian plot to give the ECB a head on a spike when the future of the domestic game and Twenty20 cricket are on the agenda. Others – the Durham captain, Paul Collingwood, among them – wince at the sanctions but recognise the governing body has at least kept cricket in the region alive when to do nothing would have seen it fold completely.

Damned if they do, damned if they don’t, perhaps. But one certainty is that the ECB has reserves in excess of £70m and yet the counties that produced the players upon which this fortune was predominantly accrued – via the national team – have collective debts at around twice that and leaves some among them truly counting the pennies.

The wider issues are ones upon which Durham cannot afford to dwell for too long as the club look to start their way back. A new plan must be drawn up and it was on Monday afternoon, when the Sky Sports News cameras cut to the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship for a chat with Sir Ian Botham, that something resembling a way forward appeared.

This was not a simple greenside vox pop with English cricket’s most recognisable face, but an interview that contained what could yet prove to contain the seeds of Durham’s recovery as the club looks to haul itself off the floor following the public battering that has left them looking like the sport’s answer to Theon Greyjoy.

Botham spoke of helping Durham “in any way I can” – a statement that has been uttered by many a former sportsman when quizzed about their former club’s ills while lining up their next drive on the golf course. But in this instance the words were not merely the glib platitudes of a former player, as the 60-year-old then revealed he is in talks with his old county about truly getting involved.

What this means in practical terms, via the backpage of the Daily Mirror for whom he writes a column, is that Botham is in talks to become the club’s new chairman who, along with a reshuffled board of directors, will look to devise a plan to guide the county back to the top tier of English cricket and continue a rich tradition of forging a winning team from local talent.

It is, after all, what they do best in Durham, with the past 25 years since their elevation to first-class cricket returning three County Championships and generating a who’s-who of England internationals (for which the country owes them a debt far greater than the financial deficit that left them on the brink of oblivion).

But from the depths of Division Two, with a 48-point deficit to wipe off, what can Botham truly do? For some he is simply a pundit for whom pre-match research is largely irrelevant and whose imaginary field placings cover every blade of grass while still keeping nine men catching in the slip cordon.

But this assessment underestimates the sheer force of nature that is Botham, who tackles problems head-on such as his record-breaking charity walks for leukaemia and who boasts a unique ability to communicate with both high-level power brokers of the business world and the junior player making his way in the sport.

The first of those two skills will be needed if local partners and investment are to be found, while the latter may also need to be deployed when the likes of Keaton Jennings and Paul Coughlin, two of their most promising talents, ponder life in Division Two after eschewing various suitors and signing new contracts at the end of the season, despite no indication from their employer that a day of reckoning was coming.

As a player present at the county’s first foray into first-class cricket 25 years ago and a resident of the north-east who is passionate about the region’s sport, Botham’s stewardship would provide a timely jolt to a club that is now faced with the steepest of inclines and could easily become zombified.

But while the county’s ascent is plotted, English cricket should enter a period of introspection about the sport it wants to be in future. Those who privately lobbied the ECB to act on the Durham issue throughout the recent season may also wish to take a look in the mirror.

Contributor

Ali Martin

The GuardianTramp

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