Paul Edwards visits a modern Test ground and gets taken back in time
Rather like Charles Ryder when he first visits Brideshead, I was reliant upon a man called Hardcastle for providing my transport to the Riverside on Tuesday. This was pleasing, not only because the tender mercies of Northern Trains could be avoided, but also because the arrangement offered a guarantee of informed cricket talk on the first morning of a game.
The sense of anticipation when one is travelling to a County Championship fixture cannot be rivalled by that experienced during journeys to shorter format matches. We know that the contest will almost certainly be decided by prolonged effort rather than brief bursts of energy, however stunning. Yes, of course I'll enjoy Chelmsford next Tuesday evening when the game begins at 7.40 and the break between innings will feature an epilogue, but the most recent Roses Match offered something deeply satisfying to savour on all its days. Even when rain is forecast, as it is for the game at Durham, there is a sense that you are giving four days of your life to this thing. It is something of a major commitment.
Away games are best of all. Old Trafford is dearly loved and a place of epiphanous experiences, but the trip to a relatively unfamiliar venue offers fresh excitements. What will have changed since one's last visit? Will the ground - say Taunton or Hove - retain its magic? (The answer's normally yes.) Will there be a bookshop ?
Well, the Riverside, like most of the Test venues, is undergoing redevelopment. In 2013 - apologies to all Lancashire loyalists for mentioning this - Durham's home has been awarded an Ashes Test, although it must be content with One-Day Internationals for the next two summers. The pavilion is being enlarged and there are plans for a hotel too. So when one turns right out of the Media Centre, one is greeted with the gruff but probably necessary notice "Warning: Construction Site: Keep out" Some Lancashire supporters probably felt they were back at Old Trafford.
There are lovely surprises too. In the hallway of the Media Centre, there was an exhibition mounted by the Durham Amateur Football Trust. (The acronym could not have been more inappropriate.) Now I have to say that the sight of a football exhibition on a cricket ground in July would normally have me reaching for the lump hammer, but this particular show celebrated a game which many remember with fondness, even if they have little patience with the Premier League. Amateur football was extremely strong in Durham, and this exhibition celebrated an era which is gone for good.
In 1954, the Amateur Cup Final between Crook Town and Bishop Auckland was played at Wembley Stadium and was attended by 100,000 spectators; in 1928 the two-street pit village of Cockfield got to the showpiece final at Middlesborugh where they lost to Leyton 3-2. Laudable enough perhaps, but even more so perhaps, when you consider that every member of the Cockfield side was unemployed. Learning about these lost times - being reminded that in some ways we don't know we're born - are among the collateral benefits of watching county cricket.
And even if the exhibition doesn't interest you and the game is interrupted by rain, there is always the view. Lumley Castle may bear liittle resemblance to the family seat of the Marchmains, but it'll do for me
Photo: PA Images