Durham finally come up with T20 formula
That Durham made it through to the FLt20 quarter finals came as a shock to most fans who've had to endure years of underachievement and rank incompetence in the competition. Their single appearance at Finals Day came in 2008 after heavy investment in Shaun Pollock and Albie Morkel, while further sporadic hints at progress have spluttered briefly into life before a collective nervous breakdown at the crucial moment. Despite attempts to throw money at the problem, there's been a creeping apathy amongst members that, as long as we're doing well in the Championship, why should we bother with this novelty cricket; a self-fulfilling snobbishness in the face of the fun that other people appear to be having down south.
Yet, with five wins in the last six games, there's cautious optimism and it may prove to be the most crucial year to have stumbled upon a formula. Financial restraints have meant that without big-name overseas players, success has been built around players who have graduated through the academy. Next year's season-long T20 will benefit sides who haven't relied on bringing aging, if pleasingly familiar, T20 mercenaries who spends their life chasing sun around the globe like a perma-tanned gin-soaked dowager.
If the partnership between stand-in captain Mark Stoneman and the never-dull Phil Mustard at the top of innings picked itself, it was the tinkering in the batting line-up and the eventual realisation that taking pace off the ball might just be the way to go that were crucial. A shocking revelation of course, but it seems as though this notion has only just trickled north, presumably along with news of the Hutton Inquiry and that there really is some hope of Finding Nemo.
While Gareth Breese, the one real veteran and legacy of the club's need to reinforce a poor side with hardened Kolpak players, has employed his consistent non-spinning offspin and lower-order hitting which has long been a preserve of white-ball cricket, the decision to give further time to the promising Ryan Pringle and bowl Will Smith's effective darts in the Powerplay overs has paid dividends. It has, however, been at the expense of Scott Borthwick's development with the ball, at least temporarily.
On the upside, Borthwick, an irrepressible puppy of a cricketer, has established himself as a top-three batsman across all forms in one the season's most remarkable transformations, even if conditions haven't always been suitable for the promising, if still relatively raw legspinner. Recent weather should mean that he has greater opportunities to bowl in the Championship but after a testing start in T20 with the bat, his regular contributions in the latter part of the campaign, in conjunction with his average of over 40 in the Championship, mean that he's become an indispensable part of the top-order. If wickets start to flow in the latter part of the season, then just like Ben Stokes, he should be back on the periphery of the England one day side.
Stokes, a photofit of the modern England cricketer, excelling in all aspects of the game while being built like the proverbial brick outhouse and with fearsomely overstated sleeve tattoos, waited a shorter period than expected to be reintegrated and has started to look more like a player whose off-field habits aren't his most interesting feature with each passing game.
While his batting in the Championship had not been at the heights which he scaled when he first burst into the team, his performances in T20 have been increasingly impressive, with the responsibility of playing as a finisher at No. 5 bringing the best out of him. The increased accuracy and pace of his bowling, coupled with his ability to clear the ropes and the fact that he and Borthwick are comfortably the best fielders Durham have produced since Paul Collingwood, should ensure that the pair will be the backbone of this side for the next decade. In Stokes' case, the possibility of being England's next Test allrounder and all of the inevitable pressurised and spurious comparisons it brings, looks nearer all the time.
Finally, there must be some praise reserved for Gordon Muchall, whose contribution to Durham in limited-overs cricket has been somewhat overlooked. Having come through the academy, he travelled the classic cycle of promising, underperforming, irritating through to finally unappreciated. His ability to finish innings in both T20 and YB40 games has often been taken for granted and with no guarantee of a contract at the end of the season due to the financial restructuring so many counties face, he may find himself the odd man out due to the lack of Championship cricket he's played in recent years.
Muchall may be like that comforting, occasionally discarded old jumper at the back of the cupboard but there's something quite reassuring about his competence and resolute lack of glamour. With the careers of Collingwood, Breese, Dale Benkenstein, Callum Thorp and Steve Harmison running out time, he's a reminder of the county's formative years and one best kept on as he finally and perhaps belatedly reaches his prime. With a developing side, we may just need his experience more than ever.
James Tiernan writes on cricket, football and music for almost anyone who asks nicely. He tweets here