By the time I emerged from my Swine Flu hell and more than a week in the spare room with terrifying night shivers, Durham were about to finish the season at Worcester. On the way to the game I had to pull over at Bassetts Poll on the A38 to do a match preview on BBC Radio Tees.
My brother-in-law lives just down the road so I knew it would be a good safe spot. Imagine my surprise when midway through my preview I looked out of the window to be greeted by a number of SS Panzer soldiers? I got the fright of my life. They could tell something was wrong on air too.
Then I saw a number of police cars just a few yards away. It was the regular weekly meeting spot for the local Hell’s Angels!
I stayed with my aunty and uncle in the Worcestershire countryside that week. They lived in a small village in The Lickey Hills near Bromsgrove. My uncle Tony came from Liverpool and was a big Lancashire fan. He’d waited decades for them to win the title outright and when they were suddenly on the verge of it in 2011 I rang him to tell him to tune into the commentary on the BBC. I couldn’t get through. He was on the golf course.
The course was just across the road from the family home. The only time I played there with him was on a frost-bound morning in 2003. The same day England’s victorious rugby team returned from Australia to parade their World Cup in London.
The Durham players had a round of golf on the same course last summer while on their way to a T20 game at Worcester. It sits on the top of Lickey Hills. The Lickey Incline, which runs up the hill from Bromsgrove, is the steepest on the British Rail network and attracts many train spotters. There are scout camps nearby.
Alvechurch is over the hill on the canal. There’s The Tardebigge Flight too. It’s the longest set of locks on the network. There are 30 in all and it can take the best part of a day to get through there on a boat. And all of this is just a few miles away from the centre of Britain’s second largest city.
Yet you could be in the middle of anywhere. The lanes are tight and the bushes have grown from either side of the road to form long, dark tunnels. No wonder the family chose to settle there in the mid-80s.
Uncle Tony loved his sport and used to enjoy a day out at New Road. He had a friend who was a director of Worcestershire. I have enjoyed many brilliant days at sporting events with him. He was there on my first visit to Roker Park. A 3-2 victory against Millwall in 1978. Who can forget their first footy match?
We went to the FA Cup Final in 1992 where his Liverpool beat Sunderland two nil. That was tough because my Aunty Liz is from Sunderland. Both loved their cricket and travelled the world watching England. During my days as a football commentator he came with me and my dad to a game at Coventry City. After the match we sat eating birthday cake with their manager Gordon Strachan.
Tony loved his golf too and they never missed an Open for years. Sadly he died two years ago. His funeral was the same day as that of Durham fan Michael Carney, who had become a good friend of mine over the years. In Bromsgrove at Tony’s funeral I couldn’t help thinking how he and Michael would have got on.
That week in 2009 he accompanied me to New Road. Durham were looking to finish the season as The Invincibles and match Warwickshire’s record from five years earlier. Unbeaten in their previous 15 championship matches, this was the last game of the season and against a Worcestershire side who were bottom and without a win.
However, the lads had been in Dublin for a few days. And they serve Guinness there. And it is strong stuff by all accounts, especially if not drunk responsibly. Their hosts were already relegated but were looking to avoid the tag of becoming the worst team in Division One history.
That title belonged to Glamorgan at the time. Worcestershire reached 347-9 at the end of day one and avoided the stigma. But Steve Harmison spent most of the day in the dressing room. The official reason was a sore knee. But he was less than amused when it was suggested in a newspaper the next day he’d been sleeping off a hangover.
The weather was lovely. It was a sunny and still week. The thermometer on the main pavilion suggested it was 19C every day. It was perfect cricketing weather but the cricket season was about to come to an end. It’s often the way.
Worcestershire were eventually out for 356 with Liam Plunkett taking 4-104. He would later take another four wickets in the second innings to leave him on 49 championship dismissals for the season.
Given the mood the Durham lads were in, not many fancied another long day in the field so it was left to the batsmen to do something about that. As I said earlier Shiv Chanderpaul liked nothing more than batting. And so he consumed 382 balls as he plodded along to an eventual 201. It took eight hours. It was the seventh double century of his career. There were a few in the dressing room who were thankful for the chance to get their heads down though and sleep off the effects of the previous days.
Michael Di Venuto had been nervous. He needed 12 runs to become the first Durham player to 1,500 in a championship season. He needn’t have worried. He made 113 and the opening stand with Kyle Coetzer was worth 124. Dale Benkenstein also made his mark on the game with 109. The two talismanic batsmen had enjoyed a great season.
Benks and Shiv put on 226 for the fourth wicket. Durham then declared on 634-8. It was their second 600+ score in three games. Diva finished the season with 1601 runs at an average of 80. There were six centuries, two of them doubles. There were also five half centuries. Dale made 1,155 runs. There were four half centuries and five centuries, including his top score of 181 against Somerset. He averaged 52.
Shiv’s stats were mentioned earlier. He was still playing international cricket at 41.
From a bowling point of view Steve Harmison recovered enough to return to the field for the Worcestershire second innings and took 1-47. He ended the season with 51 wickets. As mentioned Plunkett got 49. Graham Onions took 45 and new signing Ian Blackwell 43, to add to his 801 runs. The Worcestershire match finished in a draw but also saw Mark Davies pass 250 FC wickets.
At the end of the season it is always good to catch up with the coach and the captain to get their thoughts on what has happened in the previous six months. Under Will Smith Durham went unbeaten in FC cricket. It was an incredible achievement. It was also a great team full of talent at both ends.
At the end of the 2008 season I interviewed championship winning skipper Dale Benkenstein in the Canterbury sunshine. His celebratory speech turned into a considered resignation speech instead. It surprised me. But there is a lot more to being captain than meets the eye. There are a lot of planning meetings and so on and with a young family he had already decided it was time for someone else to have a go.
I was rather surprised when he suggested Will Smith. He had not been that regular a member of the team but he ended up taking the job and steered the side through 2009 with aplomb. So, as we stood in the sunshine of New Road, I was interested to hear his thoughts about what had been achieved.
He spoke eloquently and made a lot of sense but then a large shadow came across the ground and there was a strange feeling something unusual was happening. To my astonishment I looked up to see a hot air balloon right above us. And on the side a picture of a blonde model in a black bra. It stopped us in our tracks.
I asked on Twitter recently what people’s highlights were of 2009. In some respects it was the end of one era and the start of another. It was pointed out to me it was the year Durham re-signed Chris Rushworth. He would make his mark a few seasons later in the 2013 title winning side.
But the 2009 version were the team of all talents. In my final match notes I wrote: “Next season Durham will look to become the first team since Yorkshire in the 1960s to win the title three years in a row. On the evidence of this season they will take some stopping.”