Lewis: Peo­ple knew our fate be­fore I did

The Cricket Paper - - NEWS - By Sofia Westaby

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.

PIC­TURES: Getty Im­ages

On his way: Keaton Jen­nings has said his good­byes to Durham to go to Lan­cashire

De­parted: Scott Borth­wick and Mark Stone­man at Sur­rey

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