SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Harker shrugs off the rain to predict sunny outlook for Durham (From Durham Times)
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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Harker shrugs off the rain to predict sunny outlook for Durham
FROM his office on the first floor of the Don Robson Pavilion, Durham CCC chief executive David Harker can see every inch of the outfield at Durham Emirates ICG and every one of the 5,000-or-so temporary seats that have been installed ahead of today's One-Day International between England and Australia. Yesterday, he must have been tempted to shut the curtains.
The rain fell steadily throughout the morning, returning sporadically in the afternoon. The ground-staff ploughed on in their overcoats, smoothing over tarpaulins and driving huge mechanical squeegees that guzzled greedily at the sodden turf. The players from both sides trained indoors, sheltered from the incessant gloom.
This has been a miserable summer and there are few more melancholic places than a deserted cricket ground as the rain sets in. Yet if, and it remains a big if, the clouds disappear for long enough later today, a golden 13 months for Durham cricket, and by extension North-East sport in general, will begin.
Today, Australia, the top-ranked side in the world in ODIs. In September, South Africa, visitors for an appetising Twenty20. Then next August, the jewel in the crown, an Ashes Test against Australia, the first ever to be staged in the region. The outlook could hardly be sunnier, if only the rain would relent.
“The North-East deserves to have top-quality sport, and that means international action,” said Harker. “Our responsibility is cricket, so we should be the home of international cricket in the North-East of England.
“I don't see how you can have an England national team that doesn't play in the North-East, and if they're going to play in the North-East, it has to be here. We're absolutely committed to try to make sure that England play here every year in whatever form, and that from time to time, they're here in some of the really big marquee games like the Ashes in 2013.
“It's about putting a show on, and we want people to get into the habit of coming to watch international cricket at Chester-le-Street. That's where the disappointment is when the weather is like this.
“If the game doesn't go ahead, it's not an issue of money because the insurance is in place. You just don't want people to start questioning their commitment to buying tickets to watch international cricket.”
So does that mean Harker has spent the last week glued to the weather forecasts, desperately hoping for some light amidst the gloom?
“The reality is that I can't do anything about it so it's not one of the things I worry about,” he said. “It will be what it will be. You look at the forecast and hope for the best, but the forecast is so changeable that you can't take it for certain.
“There was a game earlier in the summer where we were pretty confident there wouldn't be a ball bowled, yet we played the full game. So you have to be a little bit careful with the assumptions you make.”
The same could be said of some of the other key issues currently clogging up Harker's in tray. Four years ago, the club revealed ambitious plans to further redevelop their ground via the construction of a new £8m permanent stand to replace the temporary units in the south-east corner and the erection of a £12m hotel complex.
Permission for both schemes is in place, and it had originally been hoped that both would be completed in time for the 2013 Ashes series.
Unfortunately, in the period since 2008, the British economy has nosedived, with the construction sector particularly badly hit. Funding has proved almost impossible to source, but while the time frame of the development has slipped, Harker remains confident that at least a new stand will be operational by the time the third Ashes Test begins next summer.
“Everything is in place in terms of redeveloping the ground, bar the finance,” he said. “That's a result of the wider economy rather than a reflection on anything we're doing as a club.
“We're still speaking to people, and I'm probably more optimistic now than I have been for a little while, particularly around the development of the hotel. But we've been at this for so long now, and talking about it for so long, that until the money is actually in the bank, you have to be a little bit cautious.
“The erection of a new permanent stand is a slightly different proposition to the hotel, and we actually came pretty close to having those seats in for this game. Again, because other people's money didn't clear when it should have done, unfortunately we weren't able to get it done. We had to pull back on it, but the project is still very much alive and I'd be hugely disappointed if it isn't completed before the Ashes.”
So off the pitch, things continue to move forward. On the pitch, however, this season has seen Durham regress. Rooted to the foot of the County Championship table and unlikely to progress to the finals day of the Twenty20, a decade of almost unrelenting progress is hitting its first major blip.
The main task in the remainder of the campaign is to avoid relegation to the Championship's Second Division, and to that end, Paul Collingwood was installed as the club's new skipper in place of Phil Mustard last week.
Relegation would not be a financial disaster, but after a golden period that has encompassed two four-day titles and a Friends Provident Trophy, it would nevertheless be an uncomfortable shock to the system.
“There's not the direct financial consequence of relegation that there might be in football,” said Harker. “It isn't a financial issue, it's about status, prestige and your standing in the game.
“It's all very well being the home of international cricket in the North-East, but if our team isn't a top team, then that's not good enough. That's what the people of the region want to see. You have to have the facilities and big events, but you also have to have a successful first team and that's what we're trying to deliver.
“We set our stall out a number of years ago to say that we'd had enough of being in the Second Division. We want to be competing at the top of the table and I felt that we had the team to do that this year. The fact that we aren't in that position is a disappointment.”