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The regional threat to Durham's academy lifeline

Durham have seen too few big crowds like this at Emirates Riverside Getty Images

Before the news broke that the ECB was actively considering the introduction of regional academies as a natural consequence of their plans for regional T20 cricket, up in Chester-le-Street, Durham were merely agonising over how best to survive.

As good as bankrupt, they escaped insolvency only by being bailed out by the ECB, which then imposed such stiff punishment as a consequence that Durham must have wondered whether they would have been better off arranging a cash deal with Wonga.

But whatever might befall them, Durham still had their academy. Here was the academy that on the day ESPNcricinfo visited had been marked as outstanding by the ECB, the academy that had achieved 100% for the quality of its coaching and teaching, the academy that had produced a steady stream of county cricketers - no fewer than 75% of the 1st XI squads in 2016, drawn not just from a convenient private school production line, but from the communities that they serve.

The advent of regional academies could undermine all that. Durham, like many other counties, could not be sure of inclusion with likely priority given to Leeds and Manchester as anticipated regional T20 bases. Durham's greatest comfort could be undermined before their eyes. They could be left just as they were in their Minor Counties days - watching player after player from the north-east leave their communities and head off to pursue a cricketing career elsewhere.

Before the news broke, John Windows, the Durham academy coach, had spoken proudly of what the Chester-le-Street academy had achieved. Of the much-trumpeted "18 Centres of Excellence" (should we now assume that phrase could become defunct?), Durham could hold their heads higher than nearly anybody, their roots deeply embedded in the heavy, poorly drained soils of the north-east of England.

"Despite what has happened, this remains the club that belongs to this region," he said. "It belongs to every cricket club, to every colt player, to every bloke who has played for the third team for 45 years, this club belongs to all of them.

"I would be surprised if the connection between the county and the clubs was as strong in any other county - even in Yorkshire. Yorkshire have too many clubs to be interested in all of them. We have enough.

"After what we have been through, it has to be the thing we can fall back on. This was always a community-interest club, even before the ECB officially made it one. It was always in the interests of the community that this club was here and functioning well. Now it is just official."

"Community, though, is a word that does not always resonate with corporations, and sports governing bodies, who have embraced an age of neoliberalism where citizens are consumers"

Durham get £100,000 annually from the ECB for their academy and their total costs are £230,000. So the net cost to the county is around £130,000 - equivalent to a top-end overseas player for the season. It is easy to cast aspersions on county academies, and suggest they do not have the latest in technology or a sizeable team of nutritionists, physiologists and every other -gist that is meant to give their work real substance. But they have pride, desire, good standards, and do an awful lot with the money.

It was a crisp winter's day in January, a milky sun briefly lightening an Emirates Riverside ground that had been cast in gloom when the ECB sanctions were announced. Jon Lewis, the head coach, knows that without a vibrant academy Durham would be sunk. "After the ECB ruling, I spent the whole of October thinking, 'What on earth do I do here?'" he said. "I had lost ten players, a division and 48 points as well as the one-day punishment.

"For a Test ground we are by far the most frugally run. Even on the playing side we have been paring ourselves back to try to make the club financially viable for years."

Community, though, is a word that does not always resonate with corporations, and sports governing bodies, who have embraced an age of neoliberalism (ironically just as neoliberalism is being questioned so powerfully) where citizens are consumers and, even if loyalties exist, they exist not to history and tradition, but towards the most powerful who are able to bring in the most revenue. The powerful reside in the cities.

Even as they brace themselves to vote for it, the counties fear that the advent of a new super-duper T20 league - the concentration of the best talent in big stadiums to lift standards and win over new fans - might send them into slow decline, but at least to accept second-tier status in T20 in the hope that the game might be revived and combined debts of £160m wiped out is a reasonable gamble.

To agree to regional academies, which would claim the best young players in the land, would seem tantamount to being an acceptance of defeat. The suggestion that the counties still held control of the game would be a pretence. It is a decent guess that these regional academies would be based in the T20 cities, with the addition perhaps of Loughborough.

City T20 would have an air of independence, the ability to pilfer or produce its own players. The desire to break free, to put the financial returns into fewer hands, would one day be irresistible. "Why should we share the returns from Big City T20?"

But in Durham's position, all that can be done is to get their heads down and survive here and now. Fortunately, any pessimism has yet to feed through to the budding young professionals upon whom Durham now depend.

"When you go down the age groups you find that kids are naturally optimistic," Windows said. "If anything, there is more energy in the academy because there are opportunities. Suddenly there are not four of five players ahead of them, there are one or two.

"The point of starting Durham was to give local lads who were good enough an opportunity. The academy is at the core of what the whole club is about. That has been bringing through strong teams.

"But from a production line point of view, the good thing has been that players have got in when they are ready. When Durham first won first-class status, young players were being brought through too early, and they weren't able to deal with the standard and they didn't fulfil their potential: lads who had great promise but never made it

"My fear at the moment is that lads will be getting an opportunity before they are ready. The club grew out of a good standard of league cricket. That is what has served us over the last 22 years. Never before has it been more relevant than it is now."

Football, of course, accepted the weakening of such ties a generation ago. But can cricket afford to think like football, or would it crash and burn by doing so?

There are issues, of course, with the 18 county academies. The geographical spread is not even, with too much concentration in the Midlands. But eight regional academies would not get into the parts of the country unserved by the current system. Quite the opposite.

The overwhelming majority of people in county cricket recognise that the game has a problem, but it is a problem that cannot fairly be laid at the door of the county academies - even if some are overly dependent upon their traditional private-school supply lines. The game is shrinking and the recently launched and generally excellent All Stars programme, designed to increase participation, needs to succeed if cricket in the UK is not to become ever more a middle-class preserve.

"We know there are less players," Windows said. "Surveys show there are less people playing sport, less people playing cricket. And there are less players prepared to commit the time to get to the sort of levels we are looking for. That's a big challenge for cricket across the country, let alone the north-east.

"Where we have a big jump on some counties is that our clubs are rooted in the communities, next to the schools, and so those relationships are easier to form. Most of the kids in schools in Durham get some chance to play cricket and it is relatively straightforward. They don't have to drive 40 or 50 minutes to get a decent cricketing opportunity. It's on the doorstep."

"The point of starting Durham was to give local lads who were good enough an opportunity. The academy is at the core of what the whole club is about"

John Windows, Durham academy coach

A tough season awaits for Durham. Lewis talks bravely, as he must, about trying to win every competition "even if nobody is pretending it is going to be a breeze", but ten players have departed and his resources are slim. If Essex, last season's second division champions, had suffered the 48-point penalty with which Durham begin the season, they would only have finished fifth. That is the extent of their task.

He will be monitoring potential loan signings if injuries bite, but he recognises that he "must protect the identity of the club". Identity: that word again. And the 2nd XI will be full of callow youths and triallists out to make a name for themselves, on expenses that just about cover their food and petrol.

"There has been no fat on the bone anywhere," Lewis said. "Staff have been cut back to the absolute minimum over the past four or five years. We come out as one of the most efficient counties in ECB figures."

Until nine years ago, there was a well-concealed room in Darlington station, a waiting room for the prime minister, Tony Blair, and his entourage. Half of Blair's first cabinet in 1997 came from the north-east. Rarely had this region, so isolated from affairs of state in London, felt itself so influential.

Now even Labour's power base is elsewhere - for the north-east to have so few shadow cabinet ministers when they seem to change on a weekly basis is quite a feat. Unemployment remains doggedly high, the region has been particularly hit by the fallout of public sector jobs, as spending cuts continue to bite and HS2 does not reach Newcastle. Only the most optimistic dream of golden times ahead.

And now the Powerpoint presentations in ECB offices down in London float the idea of regional academies. The big cities need more funds and at such times dog eats dog. A chill wind blows across the north-east, across a county that dared to dream and which now has cause to wonder whether it still has a vibrant future.