March 26, 2013

County Championship, Division One

In transition but heading the right way

James Tiernan
Durham will hope their Championship revival under Paul Collingwood continues  © Getty Images
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As if to reassert cricket's position as the people's game, Durham go into the new season with as many money worries as the average man on the street, with plans for ground redevelopment grinding to a standstill and the chances of any squad strengthening looking as likely as George Osborne declaring a lavish plan of nationalising mansions. Which is fine, until you remember that Durham, rather hubristically, actually managed to breach the salary cap last season (meaning we will start with points deducted in all three competitions this year).

Out went the sizeable wages of the irreplaceable Michael Di Venuto (retirement), Ian Blackwell (released) and Liam Plunkett (signed by Yorkshire) but the unbalanced nature of a squad in transition is personified by the presence of erstwhile national treasure/punch bag Stephen James Harmison MBE. A lack of fitness and form saw Harmison barely figure in 2012 - he was even allowed out on loan - and there's a creeping suspicion that he remained purely for a congratulatory benefit year. His media presence, either as a less-curmudgeonly foil for Bob Willis or as an affable talking head, has been far more dignified than forays into boxing or dancing extravaganzas but there seems little chance of him lining up against Somerset at the start of April.

This amble into retirement is in marked contrast with the club's older, yet more reliable, backbone. Paul Collingwood's return to domestic cricket was initially marked by indifferent form but the turnaround in Durham's fortunes in the second half of 2012, after he had taken the captaincy from the likeable if reluctant Phil Mustard, was nothing short of miraculous and will fire up some hopes of a tilt at the Championship. Dale Benkenstein, who will turn 39 during the season, has seemingly been on the verge of retirement ever since passing on the captaincy in 2009 but still he relentlessly ploughs on, marshalling the limited-overs sides while the rest of world cricket screams out for players to be younger, faster, hungrier.

Led by these two redoubtable performers, the remainder of the squad seems made of nearly men of all varieties. Graham Onions, who spent an unfulfilling winter lugging drinks around for England and making awkward small talk with Stuart Meaker, is surely the best bowler in the Championship likely to play on a regular basis. His international career may be in limbo but it would be foolish to bet against him taking 50-plus wickets for under 20 once more. He should be ably assisted by relatively late-bloomer Chris Rushworth, who has blossomed after a spell back in league cricket.

While Mark Stoneman finally looked close to fulfilling his potential as an opener last year, questions linger over the inconsistent likes of Gordon Muchall and former skipper Will Smith. It's also a big season for Ben Stokes who, having been dispatched home early from the Lions tour for a disciplinary breach, has gone from potential messiah to a very naughty boy. However, if he can recapture his pre-injury batting form of 2011 and continue with the massive strides made with his bowling in 2012, it will be difficult for England to ignore him, especially with the suspicion that the one-day side is an allrounder short. While the gloriously ebullient Scott Borthwick may have to wait for more legspin friendly conditions, former South Africa Under-19s captain Keaton Jennings has all the potential to be a knock-off Jacques Kallis.

There's no doubting that the Championship will be the priority this season, with the final year of the rather contrived YB40 format continuing to be used as a way of giving experience to younger players. In the absence of overseas imports, T20 looks likely to remain Durham's nemesis. With what remains of the '07-08 Championship winning sides on the way out, this feels like another year of transition for Durham but, with Collingwood at the helm, it shouldn't be anywhere near as bad as the first half of 2012.

Likely Championship side
Stoneman
Smith
Jennings
Stokes
Benkenstein
Collingwood (capt)
Mustard (wk)
Borthwick
Thorp
Onions
Rushworth

What I love Dale Benkenstein's refusal to retire.

What I'd change The inevitable depressing malaise of the T20, which was so bad last year we replaced Mitchell Johnson with Johan Myburgh.

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James Tiernan writes on cricket, football and music for almost anyone who asks nicely. He tweets here

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Tiernan
James Tiernan is a Newcastle-based writer who divides his time between pontificating on cricket, football and music and teaching children the finer points of English literature. He watches Durham CCC in the summer, Sunderland AFC in the winter, and travels obscure musical trails all year round. Also contributes to the Durham Times. @jamestiernan

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