Lewis: People knew our fate before I did
SINCE July last year, Durham have lost five of their most successful cricketers from their books. All of them had learnt their cricket through Durham’s academy, second XI and ultimately found ‘fame’ in Durham’s first team.
Whilst Alastair Cook’s latest opening partner in Test cricket, Mark Stoneman, chose to leave before Durham’s predicament was known, their head coach Jon Lewis has his suspicions that this is where naivety ends.
“I think a couple of people knew what was around the corner for Durham before I did,” he tells me on the morning that Keaton Jennings’ departure is rumoured.
By accepting a £3.8million bailout from English cricket’s governing body, Durham were relegated to Division Two in the County Championship and docked points in all three formats.
Leg-spinner and nifty batsman Scott Borthwick followed Stoneman to Surrey in early September 2016, when the scale of Durham’s predicament was becoming clear. “How much he (Scott Borthwick) knew about what was coming, whether he was aware of anything, I do not know,” Lewis says after a pause.
“But I have a sneaky suspicion a couple of people did know.”
When asked who these ‘people’ might be, Lewis keeps his cards close to his chest. In reality he probably could not pinpoint an individual, but rather refers to the background whisperings and chatter, rife in the close-knit community of county cricket.
“Just in general conversations you have within the game,” he explains. “At the time I did not recognise them as relevant conversations, thinking ‘I wonder why he said that?’, but later, when you see everything that happened (to Durham) I thought, ‘Oh! Maybe this is why he said that! So whether Scott was aware of anything, I am not quite sure.”
There is no doubt, however, that this season’s loss of Durham’s two white-ball captains Paul Coughlin and Jennings is a direct response to Durham’s continued predicament in Division Two.
“Paul felt his ambition was best served playing Division One cricket,” says Lewis. “He said he was happy here, has a great relationship with the coaches and his brother is still on our staff.
“I understand the arguments he makes, but, if I am honest, I do not think he has made the right decision (to leave).”
Easily, the finger of blame for what has been described as “a mass exodus” can be pointed at the ECB. Indeed, Lewis calls into question the brutality of the sanctions.
“It cost us a play-off position in the 50-overs competition. Durham would have been above Nottinghamshire in the third place of the North Group without the two-point deduction,” he recalls.
And whilst frustrations can run deep with regard to their OneDay Cup performance, truthfully Lewis knew top flight Championship cricket in 2018 was unrealistic with a 48-point deduction.
“This season we were never going to be challenging to be one of the biggest sides in the division. It is clear we are in danger of losing players if we are in Division Two.We could do with a bit more of a fair wind, so hopefully starting on a level playing field, we will get that next year.”
However, it is also possible to ask – did Durham under-sell the opportunity that lies in rebuilding the club’s position? At the time of our conversation – six days before Jennings’ move was finalised – Lewis seemed confident he still had a chance to retain his opening batsman.“If he (Jennings) feels his ambitions are best served elsewhere, then I need to convince him that they are not,” he tells me.
“The grass is not always greener,” Lewis explains. “You could say Borthwick has struggled, playing some games in the Surrey second XI,” says Lewis. “There is a difference in standard between Division One and Two, a very small one. But the big difference is between Division One and Test cricket. The effectiveness with which an individual bridges that gap, I think, is not overly affected by which division you play in.
“I feel some guys need to think about what is within them, and not where they are playing their cricket, as the most important factor in how far they go.”
Our conversation then turns to Northamptonshire. T20 champions twice over, Northants only missed promotion because of a five-point penalty picked up for a slow over-rate at Trent Bridge. And, like Durham, they too have struggled with money.
Yet when their star batsman, Ben Duckett, found favour with England and counties such as Yorkshire came knocking, Duckett chose to stay with the county at which he had learnt to play his cricket. A feat, Lewis says, their head coach David Ripley “does not get the credit (for) he deserves.”
The return of New Zealander Tom Latham and all-rounder Will Smith for next season means Lewis believes there is light at the end of the tunnel. “The last year makes you value the people who stay,” Lewis says. “And,” he continues, “I do not like the idea of permanently being an underdog.” It’s hard not to feel empathy for Durham. The enforced drop to Division Two meant their star players were always going to depart, and any coming through the ranks won’t stay for long if a top-tier team comes in. There’s no doubt the talent is there, though, and success can’t be far away.
On his way: Keaton Jennings has said his goodbyes to Durham to go to Lancashire
Departed: Scott Borthwick and Mark Stoneman at Surrey