By Will Jennings
While the rest of the Durham student community may have spent their Easter completing summative essays, revising or merely procrastinating at home, Durham University’s MCCU side have enjoyed a more eventful few weeks.
After jetting off to sun-baked Cape Town in March for a programme of preseason fixtures, the team returned to England to face three of the country’s most prestigious first-class counties, challenging themselves against some of the best the domestic game has to offer.
Such an early season test has invariably served the squad well. The MCCU came up against County Championship Division Two side Sussex in South Africa, an XI saturated with revered stars, before matches against Warwickshire, Middlesex and Durham back in more familiar terrain.
Durham’s opening batsman for the fixtures, Matt Plater, relished the experience: “South Africa was a great mix of work and a little bit of play,” he stated, recalling highlights that included playing against Sussex and former England all-rounder Luke Wright as well as promising T20 star Jofra Archer.
Indeed, Archer was recently bought for £800,000 by the Rajasthan Royals in this season’s Indian Premier League auction, testament to the increasingly high regard in which he is held and the nature of the talent the Durham side came up against.
Other fixtures in South Africa included a game against Cape Town Cricket Club, South Africa all-rounder Vernon Philander’s home team, a test that further challenged this developing Durham side.
Many of the squad rose to the occasion on the tour, with captain Will Fraine scoring an impressive century against Sussex and several others showing signs of promise in the subsequent fixtures.
Plater also recalls his most memorable off-field experiences, alluding to how the squad were at Newlands on the day the infamous Australian ball- tampering debacle erupted: “The atmosphere was unbelievable,” he noted, a comment manifest in the visibly belligerent responses the scandal elicited from the partisan South African crowd.
Following a return to England at the end of the month, preparations for the advent of the new season really began to intensify. Tests against Warwickshire, Middlesex and Durham beckoned, fixtures that would challenge the side against the likes of former England talisman Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott.
Despite the games all being affected by the grimly predictable British weather, Plater nevertheless alluded to the considerable benefits the matches provided the squad with.
“It was obviously frustrating to only play one day in each game because of the rain. However, when we did play, Jonathan Trott, Ian Bell and Sam Robson all scored hundreds against us, so I guess we can learn a lot from the way they batted.”
Despite this exposure of the young side to an array of English talent, the three days also provided the chance for the MCCU to showcase their own ability. Indeed, Plater himself thrived when such an opportunity came his way.
After surviving spells from established Warwickshire seamers Keith Barker and Chris Wright in the opening game at Edgbaston, Plater went on to score a superb 76 off 111 balls against Durham, retiring out in order to give his fellow teammates an opportunity at the crease.
“It was nice to reap some rewards from a few technical adjustments over the winter,” Plater said.
“I was pleased with the way I went about my innings on a hard early season batting wicket and to come out as the first university player to retire against a first-class county.”
Such an achievement was a watershed for both Plater and MCCU sides more generally, with a lack of time in the middle for much of the team’s middle order necessitating the opener’s retirement.
Other members of the MCCU squad also rose to the occasion in the fixtures. Fraine continued his excellent early season form with a quick-fire 65 not out in the game against Durham, while Joe Cooke contributed a similarly hasty and undefeated 17. On the bowling front, Alex McGrath, Mungo Russell and Benedict Graves picked up wickets in the game against Warwickshire, while Cooke took the significant scalp of Ian Bell.
The team’s batting was what most impressed the coaches of the side’s first-class opponents, however. One Durham coach stated that the MCCU were one of the most impressive university sides they had faced over the years, with the 194-3 declared they amassed representing the highest total produced by any of the universities against the first-class counties this season.
The experiences of Plater and his teammates therefore stand the MCCU side in good stead. Further tests inevitably await, but such extensive preparation has served to equip the group well for whatever challenges lie ahead.
With fixtures scheduled up to the end of June, let us long for the days when exams are over, the sun is out and we can go down to the racecourse to watch this group of young cricketers continue to flourish.
Photograph: Durham University Cricket Club