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There was a time when, the cliché had it, a football club in search of a centre-forward had merely to go to the north-east and whistle down a pit. The mines are largely gone and the production of great strikers has dwindled but the region continues to turn out international sportsmen.
Somewhat improbably, given it was only 15 years ago that Durham was granted first-class cricket status, the north-east is now the home of English fast bowling.
First there was Steve Harmison of Ashington, then Liam Plunkett of Stockton and, after being called into England’s NatWest series squad this week, Graham Onions of Gateshead. But for injuries, there might have been a fourth, given Mark Davies of Stockton has taken 148 first-class wickets at 22.28 in the past four seasons.
Their development is testimony to the value of Durham’s academy. Although Paul Collingwood, the oldest of the four players from the county selected for England squads this summer, provides a batting counterweight, the production line is heavily skewed towards seam-bowling.
“I can’t really say why it’s all fast bowlers,” says Onions. “I put it down to the good coaches at the club. When young lads here pick up a ball, they just want to bowl it fast, and if you can take that and coach it.”
Harmison’s success means he serves as a role model for the present intake at Durham’s academy. At 23, however, Onions is too old to have been influenced by him. It is also hard to imagine that, for all his assets as a bowler, the moustachioed left-armer Simon Brown, whose hatfuls of Championship wickets earned him a solitary Test cap in 1996, was Onions’s or any other teenager’s idol.
An answer as to who might have been perhaps comes in the number 9 shirt that Onions wears for Durham. He is coy as to his reasons but it doesn’t take much for him to start rhapsodising about Alan Shearer, and he acknowledges that to be a strike bowler is cricket’s equivalent of being a football centre-forward. Harmison, similarly, has made little secret of his love of football.
It is possible, of course, that a seam of north-eastern fast-bowling has always existed and that it just took the arrival of a first-class county to tap into it. Onions’s story is instructive.
“I played county badminton when I was young and represented England at under-15 level,” he said. “I’d never played a lot of cricket because badminton had always been my number one sport, but I used to play on a weekend, and I used to bowl fast.
“When I was 16, Geoff Cook [Durham’s director of cricket] spotted me and asked me to an indoor net at Gateshead Leisure Centre. I bowled there and he asked if I wanted to come down and train with the big boys. I’d never really considered myself a cricketer.”
Without first-class status, there would have been no such scouting and, without it, Onions, as he admits, would have been lost to cricket. “Eventually it hit me that it would be my career but I still find it a bit strange that I’m playing professional cricket,” he admits.
With 47 Championship wickets at an average of under 30 a piece this summer, badminton’s loss has been very much Durham’s gain. It may soon be England’s.