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13th June 2020 Features

Marty’s Memories – The Invincibles

The 2008 championship winning season was one of high drama which went down to the wire. Durham just edged ahead of nearest rivals Notts on the final day of the campaign and became champions while travelling under The Thames in a bus.

By contrast 2009 was totally the opposite. It was the cricketing equivalent of having your cake and eating it. Then having some more. Plus the cake of lots of others. All washed down with copious amounts of Guinness. Not drunk responsibly either!

The season began on a cold and wet Easter weekend which saw Durham playing in the Champion County match at Lords’ for the first time against MCC. It was quite a moment for a club which finished bottom of Division Two four years earlier. The MCC side boasted such names as Michael Vaughan, Rob Key, Ian Bell and Chris Woakes.

I travelled down on the train. I was full of pride. Not just because Durham were playing in such a showpiece match, but because I had managed something nobody else had.

During the winter I’d suggested to the BBC’s internet people the reigning champions should have a weekly podcast dedicated to their defence of their title. The BBC hadn’t given a podcast to any single sporting team at that point. Things like that required lots of thought and lots of form filling. And it wasn’t football either.

But I got the go-ahead and the first podcast went online the day before the Champion County match. For those who don’t know what a podcast is, it’s basically a short, tailored radio show which you can download and listen to at your pleasure. The Durham podcast would normally be about 15 to 20 minutes long and carry a series of interviews and a review of the previous week. Or highlights from a T20 game.

Social media was slowly starting to make an impression on life in 2009. The BBC had the 606 message boards. I had been on Twitter for a couple of years by then to promote the cricket commentaries and report the latest scores etc. But I had resisted the world of Facebook. Why would I want to send someone a virtual pint when I could actually go to a pub and have a real one?

But the BBC has generally been limited in how it can promote the brilliant stuff it does so I bit the bullet and signed up for a Facebook account to promote the podcast. Cricket fans duly followed and things went well for about 18 months until we eventually let it go.

I don’t think any of us had a clue back then just how much social media would go on to dominate our lives. Whether it be the news, politics, sport. Life in general.

Today I am 67,400 Tweets down the road. A seasoned veteran to some. A beginner when compared to others. I have around five and a half thousand followers. It’s not that many in the bigger scheme of things, but in comparison to the daily sales figures of some struggling newspapers it is comparable.

I started my career in the newspaper industry, working for The Shields Gazette, Britain’s oldest daily provincial paper. I loved it there and the training I received on the job was fantastic. I got to cover football at times too. And I was allowed to blossom as a reporter.

I still look back on those days fondly and the great team we had there. And I look back at how great some of the editors and senior staff were in allowing me to get on with things and develop a career which now spans more than 30 years.

Many have gone on to greater things but I don’t think any of them will forget where they started their careers. Back in those days the Gazette had daily sales of around 30,000 and a readership times three. It was printed in the heart of the town.

My aunty “Sue Snow Writes for You” was a features writer for the Sunderland Echo back in the 70s and 80s. In the mid-80s 250,000 people read The Echo every day! Incredible figures. That meant sales on a daily basis of around 83,000.

At one time there were about 80 evening papers in the country. All at the heart of their communities. The Gazette was bought out by the Sunderland Echo. The Echo was consumed by a bigger company. It’s a pattern repeated around the country.

And in the last decade or so papers have struggled. They have been trying to work out how to remain important to their communities and exist in paper form while also having a major online presence. Some have gone behind paywalls. Then returned. Others have tried to remain free online but without giving too much of their content away.

However, most people want to absorb their news in a few minutes via a mobile phone or tablet and sales figures of papers have plummeted as result, which is incredibly sad. The behemoths of Google and Facebook have taken over so much of the ad revenues available. The landscape is evolving in the industry now at a far greater rate than it did for more than a century before the internet came along.

More and more people have turned to social media to get the information they want and that has meant Twitter and Facebook have totally changed from the sites they originally set out to be. But back in 2009 setting up a podcast was cutting edge and I was proud to be part of what I believed would be a new era for the media industry.

The Durham podcast ran into the 2010 season but then ran out of legs. For varying reasons it wasn’t always possible to get the regular interviews I needed. Particularly when Durham were away from home. Maybe it was too early to have the impact I always hoped it would? Who knows?

This was back in the days when the average BBC county commentary would run to a T20 game only. Most of us didn’t go to away games. In 2009 I think only Middlesex, Surrey and Sussex were providing ball by ball commentaries of all matches.

Worcestershire and Essex may have been among those early trailblazers as well. But in terms of podcasts there was me and Durham. Anyone downloading the podcast after the Champion County match of 2009 would have heard about a game badly hit by the weather. But it did feature a century by debutant Ian Blackwell. He’d joined the club from Somerset in the winter.

THE SLOW BURN

Durham certainly didn’t begin the season pulling up trees. Their opening game was a hard-fought draw at home to Yorkshire. But it did feature 95 from Blackwell and 94 from wicket-keeper batsman Phil Mustard. He eventually ran out of partners. The second innings saw Michael Di Venuto score 143. A sign of things to come.

In the next match at Chester le Street they recorded their highest score on the ground, making 543. Dale Benkenstein weighed in with 181. There would be more of that too.

Somerset were bowled out for 69 with Graham Onions taking 6-31. It was their second lowest score against the visitors. However, they fought back with 485 in their second innings thanks to centuries from Marcus Trescothick, Justin Langer and Craig Kieswetter. It ended in another draw.

And another followed at Hove. But again Benks was among the runs with 136 in the first innings and Michael Di Venuto scored 103 in what would turn out to be a monumental season for him.

With the FP Trophy beginning, interspersed with the T20, Durham had to wait until early June to get their first championship win. It came against Hampshire. An innings and 110 runs. Hants were bowled out for just 110 in their first innings with Steve Harmison taking 4-43. He would go on to become the leading wicket-taker that summer with 51 dismissals in the championship.

Durham made 311 in their only innings before bowling the visitors out for 96 in their second. Graham Onions took 6-58.  By the end of the game Durham were third. They had won one and drawn three and were eight points behind early leaders Notts. One point behind second-placed Lancashire who they would meet next.

In that encounter Durham were dismissed for 244 in their first innings. Freddy Flintoff took 4-47. However, Lancashire were out for just 116, with both Graham Onions and Steve Harmison taking four wickets each. When Sajid Mahmood took 6-30 in the Durham second innings things didn’t look “owa clever”. But Harmison fought back with 5-46 as Lancashire were bowled out for just 135.

 

I described it as “the battle of the England wannabes”. England selector James Whitaker was watching and the bowlers he came to look at all did their bit. Decisions. Decisions. More importantly Durham secured back to back wins. The margin was 138 runs.

FLYING HIGH

By the time Sussex turned up in the North East in late July Durham were flying. Captain Will Smith made 101 and Michael Di Venuto a career-best 254 in a nine-wicket win. It was Diva’s fourth century of the season and took him to 959 runs at an average of 73.7.

In my match report after the game I noted Durham were now 10 games unbeaten in the championship and had a near unassailable lead. They led second-placed Somerset by 32 points and I asked the question, “who can stop them?” The answer was nobody!

Michael Di Venuto got to the 1,000-run mark in a draw at Lancashire where he made half centuries in both innings. He was having the time of his life. No wonder Italy came calling! I obviously say that in jest but by then he was playing on an Italian passport.

Having joined in 2007 he agreed to go down the red passport route the following year so Durham didn’t have to treat him as an overseas player. And that meant they could bring in West Indian Shivnarine Chanderpaul as their permitted overseas man.

At one point in 2008 Chanderpaul and others Windies players were in dispute with their cricket board. I think there was a fall-out over how much players were being paid so that season he turned up at Chester-le-Street earlier than expected. He’d been training in Florida, playing against a bowling machine in a garden net!

He would go on to average 236 after scoring 472 runs in six innings. Four of those were not out. The decision to bring him back to the North East had been made weeks earlier but by the time he arrived Durham were already so far ahead it may not have mattered. But it did give him scope to go out and do his own thing. Something he clearly enjoyed.

CRICKET MAKES THE HEADLINES

It wasn’t all easy going for Durham. They slumped to a quarter final defeat in the T20 at Canterbury, posting one of their lowest scores. Dave Warner had flown back from Australia for the game and got a duck. Chasing 150, they were dismissed for 93.

During this period they were also hammered by a record 193 runs in a one-dayer at Hove. By the time the cameras turned up to show a match against Essex in the same competition, neither side was going anywhere in limited overs that season.

It was a tight match. Essex needed 33 to win with four overs to go when an 18-year-old leg spinner called Scott Borthwick was given the ball. He was bowling into a stiff westerly and Essex wicket-keeper batsmen James Foster went to town. He hit five sixes in a row. It could have been six had it not been for the fact the game had been won.

Months later I heard rumours the game was being looked into because of betting irregularities. It had been live on TV after all. In recent years I have noticed a pattern when it comes to matches on TV. I am sure the other commentators working on radio receive similar requests on these particular occasions too.

But it’s incredible how many inquiries I receive from people overseas who are suddenly interested in playing conditions at Durham and likely starting line-ups. Can’t imagine who they could be working for. And I never reply. The compliance teams at the ECB are constantly looking out for this kind of thing as well and work with the betting industry to try and spot irregularities.

As for the Essex match it turned into the Mervyn Westfield saga. The 21-year-old bowler had been paid to deliberately bowl no balls. It became known as spot-fixing and he would later go to prison, spending a few weeks at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Belmarsh. Team-mate Danish Kaneria, a Pakistani spinner, was banned from all cricket for life for his part in the scandal.

Westfield was given £6,000 for his efforts in trying to concede a certain amount of runs in his first over. He didn’t actually reach the 12 runs he was tasked to try and concede either. He was 18 when he first met Kaneria. He was also banned from local league cricket but took part in an anti-corruption programme run by the PCA and his ban was eventually reduced.

When Durham returned to championship action after the Essex game their match against Hampshire was reduced to a two-day draw because of terrible weather. Their lead over Notts, who were now second, was 27 points and they were their next opponents at The Riverside.

Going into the game I felt unwell. A fever was building. I had a terrible sore throat and had the prospect of five days of solid commentary on my own. Once the championship match finished the two sides would meet in a limited overs game as well. The big question was, would I be well enough to see it all through?

It was the second week of September and Durham declared their first innings on 648-5. It remains a club record. Kyle Coetzer was now playing as an opener and made 107 in a first wicket stand of 314! That’s a club record in the championship. Michael Di Venuto chipped in with the odd 219. It was his second double-hundred of the year following his career-best 254 against Sussex.

Durham started the match needing 11 points to win the title and bagged four of them by the close of day one. Ending the day on 377-1. Absolute dreamland. By the time they declared on day two they’d recorded the highest score at the ground, which remains to this day. (The next highest is Somerset’s 610 in 2011 when a young Phil Mustard put them in “thinking it might do a bit”!)

Dale Benkenstein’s 105 v Notts was his 15th in FC cricket for Durham. A new club record. Shiv Chanderpaul also scored 109*. Samit Patel took 1-206. But Liam Plunkett had a better time. He took 6-85 and Mark Davies 4-87 as Notts were all out for 384. They followed on 264 behind. And by this time I was starting to run out of Vocal Zone lozenges. (Ask someone in your local amateur operatic society).

It took until 3.45pm on the final day for Durham to win. The margin was an innings and 52 runs. Their dominance had been so great they would have won the title with a draw because of the bonus points they picked up. Just like the year before Harmi got the championship winning wicket as he claimed the scalp of Mark Ealham for 18. In Kent 12 months earlier former Durham player Martin Saggers perished.

As Ealham fell it sparked major celebrations among the crowd at The Riverside who had been allowed in without charge to see a piece of history being made. There were around 4,500 there. It was a fantastic day and the title was wrapped up with two matches left.

On September 13th the sides met again in the Pro 40 and Durham won again by four runs. At that point I took to my bed and stayed there for more than a week. It was Swine Flu.

I have no memory of the game away at Hampshire the following week. The players may struggle to remember it too. I was out of it in a haze of tablets and sweats. Apparently the lads were enjoying themselves and in celebratory mood. Who could blame them?

Diva got another half century. Skipper Will Smith made 150. Durham scored 439 but being so far south you couldn’t guarantee the weather and for the first time in the season an encounter against Hants ended in a watery draw.

The players headed off to Dublin for the weekend. Job done.

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