Durham set Division 2 ablaze; the inside track of a record breaking season en route to Division 1 return

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How BazBall and Ryan Campbell’s infectious energy and leadership took Durham from the depths and doldrums of county cricket in 2022 to Division 2 Champions in 2023… and ready to conquer all in 2024. By Rob Rush

Coming away from media day on 22nd March this year, there was a feeling of optimism around Durham for the first time since their relegation in 2016 by the ECB. Ryan Campbell had just returned from his first pre-season as Head Coach, having agreed a three year deal at the end of 2022.

The West Australian native oozed confidence, an aura if you will, despite the club’s seventh placed finish in Division 2 the year prior. He’d turned down the same position from Sussex to join the North East outfit, swayed by the quality of players at the club.

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Still, there was plenty of work to be done to transform the squad into a team of his making. The previous regime had been too strict and not adventurous enough both on and off the field. There was a distinct lack of a spark and winning mentality.

He was also starting with a big loss, as stalwart and wicket taker extraordinaire Chris Rushworth left abruptly over the winter for pastures new at Warwickshire.

However, he refused to let that determine Durham’s fate and immediately began his work in pre-season to Zimbabwe, as the players started to adapt to his methods. The early feelings were overwhelmingly positive.

There was an excitement of the style of cricket that would be played, taking the game to the opposition, not backing down from anyone or any situation. As Ben Stokes had done with the England Test side, they wanted to be positive, trusting that it would lead to wins.

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“We want to compete on all three fronts. We underachieved last year, but we’ve built a squad that can compete. We want to be competing for titles”, red ball captain and Sunderland lad Scott Borthwick said.

“We’ve had far too many draws in the last two years, we’ve played safe cricket, and didn’t declare when we could. You don’t win titles by drawing games. We want to win games and win this division, winning is a habit.”

The talk of winning titles at Durham had seeped into the deep dark past following 2016. They lost key players to other sides and spent many years in the cricketing wilderness. Campbell had no intention of letting that continue.

The aggressive nature of attacking games in pre-season bled over to the regular season, despite a blip away to Sussex in the opening round where a batting collapse in their 2nd innings ultimately led to defeat. Campbell was unfazed, acknowledging that mistakes will be made, and how they responded is crucial.

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The response? A nail biting win against Worcestershire with just above 5 overs left in the game, as Aussie spinner Matt Kuhnemann spun his way through their order, ably assisted by England Test hopeful Matthew Potts.

That was the kickstart required. The belief was there, the blueprint for success for the season clear to see. They never looked back.

More nail biting wins would follow, most notably a 1 wicket victory over “local rivals” Yorkshire with an injured Brydon Carse scoring the winning runs early on Day 4. Blaydon Races belted out from the dressing room, after being locked away for the majority of seasons past.

They had now hit full flow, that loss to Sussex just a minor blip on what otherwise was a perfect report card.

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I spoke to Campbell on the way down to an interview with the BBC after the game and asked him if he was a miracle worker. Humble in response, he said “Nah mate, I’ve just given them the freedom and confidence to be themselves.”

He wasn’t wrong. The crux of the squad was the same as the season before, with only wicketkeeper-batter Ollie Robinson and the reinstatement of Graham Clark the changes. You’d be forgiven for thinking Campbell had brought in an entirely new squad.

Everyone felt connected around the club, revelling in the success. There was hardly a negative comment muttered. Everyone loved coming to work, eagerly awaiting to watch what magic the team would conjure up next.

Campbell’s philosophy is simple when broken down; batters score runs at a fast rate, big runs at that, to give the bowlers enough time to take 20 wickets.

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Potts, Carse, Ben Raine and Paul Coughlin rose to the task in the fast bowling department as first responders to Campbell’s call to order. Johnny Bushnell and new signing Bas de Leede chipped in with runs and wickets when required, Division 2 sides quaking in their boots when having to face a fully fit and firing bowling unit.

Raine and Potts led the way for wickets in the division, even with the latter missing time due to England squad call ups. They were too good for batters, comfortably so.

The batting group fired on all cylinders, led by skipper Borthwick and white ball captain Alex Lees as they put opposition bowlers to the sword. Lees put his disappointing England performances and dropping behind him, blazing his way to 1347 runs for the season, top of both divisions.

David Bedingham, Robinson and Clark also scored high numbers of runs as Durham set a new club record for batting bonus points with 54, such was their dominance in the competition. Simply put, they were on another level.

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The return to the promised land of Division 1 was confirmed during their last road game away to Worcestershire, with championship status confirmed by the end of the game. A champion’s homecoming awaited them.

They finished the season as they’d played it, dominating Leicestershire over all 4 days even with inclement weather, as Matt Parkinson and Potts combined to end the game and officially end the season on a high.

The rendition of Blaydon Races following that win was the loudest it’s ever been, with every squad member belting it out at the top of their lungs, supported by the packed members area in the pavilion.

The celebrations would continue long into the night and into the following days, as they should. The cricketing fans of the north east had something to smile about, their Durham back in Division 1 where they belonged.

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The photos after the game showed one thing: togetherness. Every staff member, from safeguarding officer to digital media assistants celebrating a marvellous season.

Their brand of cricket brought everyone together, led superbly by the Perth native Campbell. He’d given Durham their togetherness, team spirit and power back. They were a force to be reckoned with once more.

Is he satisfied with Division 2 champions? By no means. He wants Division 1 champions next year, and who’s to bet against him doing it?

The final line on the inside track: Durham are back, bigger and better than ever, ready to take on the big boys of county cricket once more.

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