May 19, 2013

Allrounders plot Durham's path up the table

In a transitional season that threatened to be another haunted by relegation worries, Durham have found a successful formula

Cricket, to misappropriate a well-worn cliché, is a funny old game. A non-fan of what I presume, given you're reading a somewhat niche county blog, is also one of your abiding obsessions, recently remarked to me that the "stupid sport that takes five days" was inaccessible and he'd never get into it, like it were homeopathy, North Korean Communism or Esperanto. My dismissive frown perhaps reinforced his long held prejudice as I bayed that this couldn't possibly be true. "Regardless," he said, being at least supportive of my writing, "whatever shall you write about this month?" My jubilance at thoughtfully replying that the heavy roller had become crucial, I suspect, has done little to subvert his dismissal of "that stupid sport".

Yet Durham's season, one which promises to currently have more ups and downs than an over exuberant lift operator, has indeed turned on the change in pitches. This has ensured county cricket is rather more like it's grown up Test brother in that some of them are deadly slow and lifeless. It's perfectly fair to say that in recent years Durham's rise has been largely based around their ability to producing their fair share of top class seamers from Steve Harmison through the young, pre-wayward Liam Plunkett to Graham Onions and cherry-picking the odd under-appreciated talent such as Ottis Gibson and Callum Thorp. As a result, the thought of a season where even in May that pitches would be slow, low and spin-friendly would have spent most Durham fans running for the 2009 copy of Wisden to try and reassure themselves with lashings of homely statistics of a season where everyone was reassuringly caught behind. But the unexpected transformation of Durham from an easily stereotyped pace monster into an altogether more subtle beast has been a qualified joy to behold.

Paul Collingwood's captaincy has been crucial and the turnaround since the gentle malaise the side were coaxed into under Phil Mustard seems a distant memory. Collingwood's sheer positivity, whether that be in field placing or in declarations has been pivotal in a season where you could well imagine a plethora of tedious draws once the weather hopefully improves later in the summer. Draws won't win you a Championship; they may save face once and a while but the need to chase glory and sometimes be burned may well be decisive this summer.

Having started the season with a top order that looked like they couldn't put together a partnership at an overly amorous ceilidh, their collective return to form against Yorkshire looked likely to have secured a win. Very few would have been critical of Collingwood's declaration, only to run into an imperious looking Joe Root and a pitch so dead it could have been haunted. As depressing as that final day ultimately was, it did signal Durham's intent to attack and inadvertently stumble across a formula which could see them as formidable opposition for the remainder of the season.

The game which followed at Trent Bridge was never destined to be remembered for Will Smith's century - so tedious it's now used by the US military as part of extraordinary rendition - but instead for the quite frankly ludicrous chase of 183 in just over 20 overs. The logical thing for all pundits to leap on was the carefree attitude which T20 has bestowed upon players, chasing what once upon a time would have been a reasonable 50 over score. Which is fine until you remember that Durham have, with the exception of 2008's Shaun Pollock-inspired aberrational Finals Day appearance, been almost exclusively appalling in the shortest format. Awful. Like a village side, writing a wacky memoir about the failings of the butcher, the baker and the scented new-wave organic candlestick maker awful.

Phil Mustard is, of course, a fearsome one-day opener who resides on the list of mistreated England wicketkeepers of the last decade, but Mark Stoneman's return to form after a sticky start meant the total was never in doubt. Stoneman, who this year inherited the No. 23 shirt from his idol and mentor Michael Di Venuto, played partly like his hero and partly like Matthew Hayden at his belligerent best.

Yet, more significant in the long term may be the initially baffling selection of Gareth Breese, the non-spinning spinner whose accuracy and late order hitting has long made him the preserve of the limited overs side but whose recent four-day appearances have been few and increasingly far between. He put in an admirable performance but it was the desire to actively pick a second spinner which was most noteworthy. After dropping out for the next game at The Oval with injury, that the even more rogue selection of 19-year-old Ryan Buckley, a player who had barely been a second XI regular last summer, proved that Durham's commitment to a second spinner was probably here to stay, especially after he took five wickets in the first innings, thanks in part to Collingwood's relentlessly aggressive captaincy supporting a man he'd only faced a few times in the nets.

As batting allrounder Ryan Pringle is also staking a claim in the YB40 side, this potentially first ever golden age for Durham spin is an intriguing one and should prove pivotal for Scott Borthwick, who has been given the responsibility of moving up from No. 8 to No. 3 in the batting and may actually get a full of season of regular bowling, something which has escaped the 23-year-old legspinner due to vagaries of the English summer. Just like Ben Stokes, his bowling his still relatively inconsistent with too many bad balls creeping through, but his six wickets and steady batting in the chase against Surrey mean that this player who excels in the field and has the exuberant charm of eager-to-please Labrador puppy could fulfil his potential as an allrounder.

With bowling allrounder and owner of the silliest start to a run up in county cricket Mark Wood getting wickets and runs at Trent Bridge, Durham's aim appears to be to stack the side high with versatile allrounders to ensure those top order frailties aren't necessarily the end of the world and that they have the bowlers to react to any surface. It almost certainly won't be the stuff of title wins but with three wins on the board already, perhaps there's a hope that this season of transition might not be the nervous relegation battle we once feared.

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