County Championship, Division One April 22, 2013

Di Venuto absence leaves Durham a grim reality

Durham have yet to recover from the loss of their dominant Tasmanian, Michael Di Venuto

In another world, where the County Championship is a behemoth which stands intimidatingly astride the television schedules, an innovative executive has not failed to recognise an opportunity. Amid the never-ending deluge of reality TV, the executive has pitched, presumably to great acclaim, 'How do you solve a problem like Di Venuto?'

In that orgy of self-congratulation that follows it has become apparent that the nation's hive mind has been transfixed on the frailties of Durham's top order, which have yet to recover from the loss of their dominant Tasmanian, Michael Di Venuto, to the ravages of old age, injury and latterly the unenviable task of teaching Phil Hughes not to waft aimlessly outside of off-stump as Australia's batting coach.

While Durham's victory in their opening game against an arguably declining Somerset side was a cause for optimism akin to unexpectedly finding £20 in a trouser pocket on a Sunday morning, the Warwickshire hammering was like reaching into the other pocket o find that you'd left your wallet in the taxi.

Despite Scott Borthwick's first innings efforts and signs that he may well be getting close to fulfilling his potential as an all-rounder rather than simply a competent No 8 batsman, the absolute shambles at the top of the order will be of most concern to Durham.

Their averages across four innings have stretched from Keaton Jennings' earth shattering 10, Mark Stoneman's Bradman-esque 6.75 and Will Smith and Dale Benkenstein's scoring of an at least even four. While Jennings has youth and inexperience in his maiden full first-class season to fall back on, the other three players are of most concern. Of the many top-order players to have come and gone over the years at Durham, Stoneman looked towards the end of last season as if he was ready to push on and cement his place but the sickening sense that he could end up as a perennial nearly man in the mould of Gordon Muchall has remerged far too early in the season.

Will Smith, for those of you following him on Twitter, will be known as a better horse tipster than batsman of late. He could consider himself relatively lucky to be in the starting line-up after an indifferent end to 2012, only to return to the side and graft his way to a century against Durham MCCU, a side who for all their endeavour, are hardly the most terrifying attack Durham will face this season.

Finally, the saddest sight may just be the seeming decline of that old war horse Dale Benkenstein. While last summer was a difficult season for all batsmen, the suspicion that age may finally be catching up with him seems to be developing. It is not exactly a shout, but certainly beyond the whisper in the back of your mind you previously dared not confront. His immense contribution to the county over the previous glory years will surely buy him more time but he no longer feels like that stabilising force in the middle order that Durham so often fell back on over a number of years.

Since Shivnarine Chanderpaul's departure at the end of 2009, Durham have failed to grasp just how to deploy the varying levels of funds available for an overseas player. There's no doubting that Chanderpaul often played with all the grace of a tyrannosaurus rex attempting to play croquet but he was also exactly the nuggety presence which Durham sorely lack at three. The attempt to sign Jacques Rudolph at least recognised this issue but it currently feels like it could be a long summer of early collapses, before Paul Collingwood once again rolls up his sleeves, digs in, puts in some graft and generally wins middle order cliché bingo through each and every unenviable rebuilding performance.

Not that it should all be doom and gloom, as many teams will struggle at Edgbaston this summer and, with the victory over Somerset, Durham may well be a quarter of the way to survival. Without wishing to come over all Henry Blofeld (Look, a bus! etc), the pigeon-toed Graham Onions still looks as if he will be there or thereabouts in terms of the division's leading wicket takers and in lerague with Chris Rushworth, the ugly duckling come good, makes up a fearsome new ball partnership.

Ben Stokes appears to have responded in the entirely correct way to his somewhat chastening departure from the England Lions tour, with an encouraging volume of both runs and wickets. It should be noted that the key dismissals of Trescothick and Kieswetter were just as important as Rushworth's career best 6 for 58 in the first innings. While his discipline may mean he sits out playing for England this summer, a continuation of his early-season form may well force Andy Flower or more likely Ashley Giles into giving him a second chance.

This week's game against Yorkshire, another side to have made a somewhat indifferent start to the season and who are also likely to finish in the lower half of the table, will give a greater indication as to whether this is a glass half full or half empty start to the season. One thing is for sure: Durham won't challenge for honours at the end of the season, with the race to mathematical safety already seeming like the target.

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