Two northern boys – Durham stalwarts both – have swapped Lumley Castle for Elephant & Castle. Surrey’s new signings open up to Phil Walker about the strains and stresses that haunted their departure from their hometown club, and what the future holds down in the capital.
Mark Stoneman, Geordie to his beltstraps, is recalling past visits to the capital. “Playing in London, I used to absolutely hate it. Used to say: ‘Hate London, could never live here’. And here I am.”
And here he is, though not alone. Alongside him in the Oval players café, right by Surrey’s amply stocked dressing room, is Scott Borthwick. “That’s the north-east mentality,” he says. “Whenever we played a four-dayer down here, we loved having a few days here, but then you’d wanna get out.”
The “we” to which Borthwick refers so naturally is, of course, Durham CCC, where both men have played all their careers to date.
“But now London’s my home, so I’ve got to crack on. And actually – I’ve been telling my mates this – you enjoy it more than you’d think. I tell them I love getting the tube. They don’t believe me…”
Uprooting took its toll. Stoneman admits to suffering sleepless nights. Borthwick talks of their decision “going against the grain” and “turning a few heads”. Neither escaped the censorious tongues of stung teammates and supporters.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve lost any friendships,” says Stoneman evenly, “but it put a strain on things at times. These are people you’ve grown up with, spent your whole career with, and all of a sudden they’re wondering why what they’re trying to achieve isn’t good enough for you anymore. It opens your eyes to life – well, it’s opened my eyes to my life – to what you have to value.”
Borthwick jumps in: “To tell them you’re leaving, obviously they’re gonna be down and gutted. But at the same time, if they are your real mates they’ll back you and support your decision.”
For all the obvious allure of the Oval, it’s impossible to detach the sorry saga of Durham’s finances from the arrival in London of its two best batsmen. Stoneman went first: at 29, after four successful years, he’d found himself in the last year of his contract with little sign of progress. His agent “put the feelers out” and by July it was announced he was leaving.
“I can’t deny it. I think I’m here because of the financial difficulties. If I’d never been left to go into the last year of my contract, then conversations [with Surrey] would never have followed on.”
For all the dark nights and strained farewells of recent months, both men are at pains to protect the essence of the place that made their name. “What Durham achieved in the last decade has been fantastic,” Borthwick says. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that they will bounce back. It might be a struggle this year, but they can still win them back this year and get promoted.” Stoneman adds: “The mentality of that dressing room was always: Whatever you throw at us, we’ll always come back. In 2013 we started on minus-seven points, with no overseas player, and we want on to win the league. The lads that are still there, and the coaching staff, can continue that mentality.”
That said, a gnawing sense of grievance – echoed in the pursed comments of many other players – hasn’t quite faded. Durham survived at the last, helped by Mark Wood bowling 35 overs against Surrey with a smashed ankle that would be aggravated to the point where his winter was ruined, only to be told what many in the corridors of power had known for quite some time: that they were doomed regardless.
Stoneman says carefully: “The fallout in October – more than anything I felt for the players. Those last few months that we had together, to not get relegated, I think we mutually felt that was going to be our parting gift.”
“And it wasn’t just the playing side,” adds Borthwick. “I was still in the north-east at the time and just walking around the shops, cricket and sports fans would come up to me and talk about it. The north east is quite a passionate place when it comes to sport – everyone was in shock.
So now it’s London calling. It’s a massive club, says Borthwick – “One of the biggest in the world” – and the sheer acoustics of the place still take some getting used to. The Oval’s noisy tenants know exactly what bang they’re getting for their latest buck. Borthwick is as sturdy at No.3 as he is lissome in the field, while Stoneman is the most purely watchable opener in the land. Both players have passed 1,000 first-class runs in each of the last four seasons.
No guarantees, of course. Surrey are not lacking for quality top-order batsmen and neither expects to slip in unimpeded. “It’s daunting but exciting,” says Stoneman. “If you’re looking over your shoulder to get that place, what levels do you have to achieve to secure it? The time is here to put the work in, and if it doesn’t succeed, then that’s totally on me.” As for Borthwick, a certain Kumar Sangakkara tends to bat at first drop. “Aye, but when we played a few games together for Durham, I elbowed him down to No.4!”
Both have serious ambitions to play international cricket. Borthwick received a solitary cap in the funeral march Ashes of 2013/14 but nothing since, while Stoneman has yet to score heavily enough to muscle past the other pretenders. It was primarily Borthwick’s leg-spin that got him into that team, but with only 68 first-class wickets since that match, it’s evident that the batting’s taken over – though 18 wickets in last season’s T20 tournament lends some weight to his belief that the Oval’s bouncier, drier surfaces could reinvigorate that side of his game.
As for Stoneman: “Big hundreds. Double hundreds. I can imagine if the selectors are sitting round a table they’d look at me and say, ‘Yep, he scores his runs, fifties and sixties, couple of hundreds thrown in a year, and that’s been a similar pattern for four years now’. But for me to kick on to that next level, it’s making double hundreds. Double hundreds are what win Test matches. Double hundreds win four-day games. That would be my way in.”
Borthwick and Stoneman gave their all to north-east cricket. They deserve great credit for that. Now for the next way in. Now for London.
For our full ‘Ten to Watch’ for 2017, pick up a copy of issue 151 of the magazine.