June 25, 2013

Cook absence shows Durham strength

Without their head coach, Durham are revealed to be in good shape

As trite as it sounds, the news of Durham head coach Geoff Cook's heart attack on Thursday put the great strides his side have made over the past month into stark perspective. Since making their first-class debut in 1992, Cook has been a pivotal figure in the county's development, from captain, through academy director then onwards to first team coach, overseeing the first silverware with 2007's Friends Provident Trophy win followed by back to back Championship wins.

It is impossible to overestimate the impact his paternal and inspiring leadership has had on the club, not just in silverware but his role in leading and developing the club's great talents from Paul Collingwood to Ben Stokes. Importantly, he also brought Dale Benkenstein, arguably the county's greatest ever player, to the club in 2004 and it is he, along with Jon Lewis, another player who arrived at the club with his career drifting and never really left, who'll be asked to guide the club while Cook hopefully gets himself fit enough to return to the job.

His absence comes at a time when against many pre-season predictions, the team goes into the T20 break looking as good as it has at any time since the 2008 Championship win. In a local newspaper column, Steve Harmison, still a Durham player in contract only, commented that Cook had the squad in a position that meant they were able to manage themselves in his absence, such were the expectations he instilled in the team. The first team, led by the inspirational Collingwood, now has a core of young players, with the recent victory over Warwickshire featuring only four players over 26. While Collingwood is showing clear signs of being in decline with the bat, he's taken on a role reminiscent of Mike Brearley with England, in that the Championship side would be substantially diminished without his experience and tactical knowhow. With Dale Benkenstein's absence through a shoulder injury for still, as yet, underdetermined period, his presence will be even more vital without Cook's presence.

For all Durham's resurgence has been built on a bedrock of relative stability in management and senior players, it's the unexpectedly swift improvement in Durham's younger players which have been behind their charge up the table. While many a grim headmasterly face talked sagely about this season being pivotal in the career of Ben Stokes after his late night misadventures with England Lions over the winter, his return to the England T20 side for the admittedly experimental squad against New Zealand came because in many regards he was becoming too good to ignore. Over recent weeks the improvement in controlling his ever-quicker bowling has given him sufficient consistency to be named as one of only three quick bowlers in a recent game at Taunton. His deadly inswinging Yorker which gets more deadly by the week and a desire to win which manifests itself in a look which Collingwood suggested makes him look like he'd rip your head off if you didn't let him bowl, means that if he can restore his batting to the consistency he showed in 2010 then England could have a real player on their hands.

The development and redefining of the roles of unfulfilled talent has also been crucial. Mark Stoneman, while still vulnerable early in his innings, has continued to mature and worked hard on his playing of spin, which has helped him into the top five Division One run scorers, which is no mean feat playing on a bowler friendly home pitch and after a fairly awful start to the season. As a result, Collingwood's calls for him to feature on the Lions tour this winter seem entirely justified. Scott Borthwick continues to blossom at No. 3, having had little opportunity to bowl prolonged periods of leg-spin.

Perhaps the biggest success of the season has been to take two very different and relatively fringe bowlers and turn them into first team regulars. Chris Rushworth's 80mph swing had previously proved effective in one day cricket but his accuracy has now seen him become a solid and dependable part of the Championship side, ousting the aging Callum Thorp, who did much the same job for many years. Mark Wood, a player hitherto barely used but now bowling at 90mph and mastering reverse swing, may not be the tallest for a quick bowler but players with that kind of pace have forced their way into Lions reckoning with a similar amount of raw potential.

In many regards, the start of T20 couldn't have come at a worse time for Durham, given they've traditionally been nothing short of awful in the competition, with just one lacklustre appearance at Finals Day, in 2008, and no overseas players to bolster the line-up. But even in the face of current adversity off the pitch, the team bond seems stronger than it has for many a year and perhaps it's best not to tinker too much. But with all expectations shattered this year, perhaps it might finally be time to make Geoff Cook proud in this of all competitions.

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