September 17, 2013

Young stars behind Durham blockbuster

They have faced plenty of adversity throughout the season but Durham's homegrown squad look like carrying off the Championship

Durham's season has reached the point where a montage may become necessary. Through being written off by press, points deductions, crippling financial difficulties, Geoff Cook's heart attack, a litany of injuries and international call-ups at crucial moments , they are leading the Championship going into the penultimate round having just brushed aside their two nearest rivals. It needs the requisite motivational soundtrack of '80s rock, dynamic action, slow-motion snapshots of ecstasy and agony that fades to a tear-jerking motivational speech. As Billy Bob Thornton memorably intoned near the end of Friday Night Lights "My heart is full boys".

While the YB40 campaign self-destructed in comic fashion at Derbyshire, it had always felt like a sideshow to the growing momentum of the Championship charge. With such a young squad and with no small degree of natural pessimism, there was a concern the abject nature of the limited-overs collapse would knock confidence. It was therefore fitting that while Yorkshire tried to contrive a win at Sussex through declaration bowling, Durham instead blew Derbyshire away with a display which said everything about belief and, crucially, what makes Graham Onions still such an improbably underrated bowler.

Cricket is a game that naturally lends itself to poring over statistics but it is those intangibles like team spirit, belief and perhaps a youthful lack of fear which have triumphed. The game against Surrey, a side who look bereft of any of those qualities was a case in point. Aside from Hashim Amla and the terrifying Greek god made flesh Chris Tremlett, they looked beaten as soon as the wickets starting falling, especially when nightmarish cyber-punk parody Jade Dernbach threw not only his toys but most of his bedding out of the pram in disgust at the meek nature of the performance. Against them were no great stars but in the main a raft of academy products with minimal Championship experience.

Scott Borthwick's transformation into a No. 3 batsman continues apace, even if his development as a legspinner has stalled. Having passed 1000 runs for the season, despite starting the year as No. 8 and never previously passing 500, he should, perhaps along with opener Mark Stoneman, tour with the Lions on the strength of his batting alone. His century against Surrey, coupled with second-innings runs and wickets in the vital game away at Yorkshire have made him nigh-on indispensable and symptomatic of the Durham's Academy's switch to developing, just as England have, three-dimensional cricketers.

Ben Stokes, who has an outside chance of making the Ashes squad after his improving ODI performances and is probably in direction competition with Chris Woakes for a place, is another obvious example, although he finds himself in the awkward position of being a better red-ball bowler and white-ball batsman. His mammoth spell at Scarborough after Mark Wood's injury spoke volumes of his character and desire to step up and take responsibility. Paul Collingwood has talked much of Stokes' fearsomely competitive nature and presumably it is this characteristic, as well as his natural ability, which has seen him fast-tracked back into the England squad despite his winter misdemeanours with the Lions.

The players who've broken through when injuries and call-ups have struck have looked comfortable in all three facets of the game. Usman Arshad, who presumably thinks this Championship lark is easy with his 13 wickets at 10.23 in three games so far, has captained the 2nd XI and is generally considered capable of batting at higher than No. 8. Wood, whose ability to bowl at close to 90mph has caught the eye of England selectors, is certainly a competent batsman with aspirations of being considered an allrounder. Even left-arm seamer Jamie Harrison, whose career has been thus far plagued by injury, hit vital runs in the victory over Yorkshire and one-day regular Ryan Pringle is another who will have aspirations of batting higher up the order.

Fearless they may be but Collingwood's leadership has been telling, even if it has become clear he is on the wane as a batsman. He has been able to defend big totals through aggressive captaincy but some of his decisions have been inventive in a way completely at odds with his dogged and occasionally dour image; more Brendon McCullum than Alistair Cook in that regard. The two slips and three, yes three, gullies that awaited Surrey's Steven Davies was particularly memorable in its ingenuity. How long he continues playing remains up in the air, but he's more than justified his place as a Brearley-esque leader.

With two games remaining and attack leader Onions available for the rest of the season, after his frustrating spell on the fringes of the England squad, it is very much Durham's and perhaps the weather's to lose. With further cutbacks to the playing squad expected in the winter, due to the club's still perilous financial position, a Championship win may serve as the last hurrah of the era of the expensive, bloated squad at the club. But there's now a sense around Durham that this crop from the academy might just be amongst the most talented the club have produced. Regardless of the remaining games, 2014 will be approached with optimism.

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