By James Gray
THE SUMMER of 1882 will be best remembered for the events at the Oval at the end of August, when the ‘body of English cricket’ was so famously cremated, and the Ashes taken to Australia.
In fact, it was not the first humiliating defeat dished out by the Australians that summer, as they had only a month earlier found themselves playing at South Northumberland.
Although Fred Spofforth, who took 14 wickets in the only Test of the summer, was not playing, the rest of the Australia side used the game as practice.
A Northumberland side were soundly thrashed by an innings, finishing the game so early that they were invited to bat a third time – having made 63 and 35 in their first two, they managed 67 at the last attempt.
More than 130 years later, on a pitch far more conducive to run-scoring, English and Australian sides met again, as the U19s clashed in Gosforth.
The Australians won again, but it was a landmark day for the club.
“It was great to have people from all over the world here, and great cricket figures like Graeme Hick and Clive Bradley paying compliments to the ground,” said club historian and scorer, Duncan Stephen.
“When the club formed in 1864, it was as Bulman Village, on a field that didn’t even seem to have a wicket.
“The record of the first game is quite remarkable really. They played North Durham, and lost. The top-scorer on the day was F. O. Bradley with 14.
“North Durham got 59, Bulman Village made just 36, although there were three not out batsmen in the Bulman innings. The scorers would have a fit!
“However, they improved the ground, got a couple more acres, and improved the pavilion in 1882, which made it much more attractive to visiting sides, which I think is what got the Australians here.”
It was clear that even before the club became known as South Northumberland, it was at the centre of the community.
As well as cricket, they would host athletic events on the outfield and concerts, and later, become one of Britain’s largest tennis clubs.
“When I got a job here in 1971, I joined ‘South North’, they had 23 grass tennis courts and four hard courts,” added Stephen. “It was a pretty good time to join really because they’d won the championship in 1967, but then they’d lost quite a few of those players, so quite a few of the university folk got into the team.
“But it was a pretty big club, because they had the only indoor centre in the area, and it was the biggest tennis club outside of Wimbledon in this country, and one of the biggest worldwide.
“It was a great thing to be a member of.
“It caused a few issues for the groundsman who wasn’t getting any younger. There were two squares, and all the tennis courts, with the endless netting that had to be taken up and down.
“Eventually, the tennis dwindled, and other places opened nearby. We would have needed to invest quite a bit of money at the end of the Nineties for the tennis side of things, but that was difficult.
“As a club we felt we couldn’t attract investment for tennis, but we could for cricket.
“So we sold the land where the tennis courts had been, and we built a five-lane indoor centre, which we had before Durham CCC had their own, so for about five years they’d come and use ours.”
The ground in Gosforth is still one of the best in the North-east. To celebrate their 150th anniversary, Durham played a Royal London One Day Cup game there last summer, beating Warwickshire.
The anniversary really comes as the club reaches perhaps its most successful era, having dominated the North East Premier League, winning it ten times since its inception in 1999, including remaining unbeaten and waltzing to the title by 58 points this year.
It is difficult to ascribe the success of South Northumberland to one man in particular, or to any one element, but captain John Graham, a former U19 international, arrived in 2000, and has hardly looked back.
“I became captain in 2003, and that was the year we won our first league title,” said Graham.
“I think from the outside, you might say we’ve paid a lot of money, but actually we’ve created a core of very good players who have stayed at the club because they want to win things, and because they’re friends.
“There’s so much history around the club. The pavilion is filled with old photographs, and there’s a record of every captain since the beginning, so it’s pretty incredible to be a part of that.
“It’s a unique club because we’re pitched between a traditional club and top-level county cricket. It’s run as a business with a board of directors, but then the people side of it is just as important, with the families involved, the people who come and watch, and the supporters.
“Because we’re unique we don’t have a model to work from, because it’s a village club with great facilities, and we’ve hosted first-class games, so it’s a bit different.
“But on the people side, we’ve got things right I think.”
Those community roots that founded the club on a field off the main street 151 years ago run strong through the club.
Although there have been a few overseas pros of note – India’s Chandu Borde, West Indian Reon King – South Northumberland have during their success looked to recruit from their own pastures.
Even current pro Marcus North, who has 21 Test caps for Australia, is married to a girl from Gateshead and will next year be able to naturalise.
“We decided to aim to do well in national competitions, and spread any money we had around three or four players, as opposed to a big-money overseas,” added Graham.
“From the club side, since I arrived, the infrastructure is hugely improved, with the building of a new indoor centre, and the pitch is fantastic now. It seems to be growing every year.
“What we want to create now is a legacy so that the success continues, and I think we’ve got everything in place to make sure that happens.”
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper on Friday October 2, 2015