September 26, 2013

County cricket

A title to savour, but uncertainty lies ahead

James Tiernan
Ben Stokes battled pain to take three wickets, Durham v Nottinghamshire, County Championship, Division One, Chester-le-Street, September 18, 2013
Ben Stokes' improved bowling has been a key factor for Durham  © Getty Images
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It would be easy to focus on the human interest aspect of Durham's Championship win, as rarely could there have been a side that provided such an easy narrative to explore. Indeed the triumph over adversity in the face of Geoff Cook's heart attack, which in turn galvanised a young team who came through under his stewardship, has been much explored since the title was secured.

Rightly so of course, as it's a genuine feelgood story made only the sweeter by the fact it was led by Paul Collingwood, the stoic everyman of England's 2009 peak, of whom you would struggle to find a cricket fan who would say a bad word about his character. This has all been covered in impressive depth elsewhere, yet the reasons behind the on-field success have been relatively ignored in favour of the understandable human interest.

In some regards, Durham's season and future has been one based on cutting back on the excesses which followed the back to back Championships in 2008 and 2009. That winning mentality fell gradually apart, with a much documented lack of discipline and drop in professionalism starting to eat away at the club.

Collingwood's captaincy of a relatively inexperienced side and bringing the standards of Test cricket to a group of players eager to learn was crucial. Players symptomatic of those issues at the club such as Liam Plunkett, Ian Blackwell or Steve Harmison, left or were sidelined. Collingwood, no longer physically able to fling himself salmon-like at point, has been a largely calming presence at first slip, offering the occasional, literal arm around the shoulder.

But his tactical acumen and sheer positivity in setting fields has been vital. While Durham's batsmen have often offered the scores to justify this, he has rarely slipped into the conservatism of an Alastair Cook or Andrew Strauss. It seems faintly implausible that more captains don't spend entire seasons on the attack or at very least demand pitches which give them that opportunity.

On that very matter, there has been some implied criticism that Durham were somehow bending the rules in preparing seam friendly pitches which best suited their undoubted strength in depth in that department. All of which is fanciful nonsense along the lines of suggesting that sub-continent groundsmen should be rebuked for helping spinners.

Graham Onions has, of course, been the stand out bowler in domestic cricket and it seems ridiculous that he's been left out of the Ashes squad. Yet Durham could not have succeeded without a string of other quicks. Chris Rushworth, who also passed 50 wickets for the season, is in the minority of the Durham squad, in so far as he far from a three dimensional cricketer. Yet his relentlessly accurate, yet not necessarily express pace swing bowling, has been too good for many batsmen this year.

Mark Wood's sprinters start and unexpected 90mph bowling from a relatively short run up and hardly towering height has unexpectedly hurried many batsmen and led to an inclusion in the England performance squad. The departing Callum Thorp, a now fit Jamie Harrison and late season find Usman Arshad have all contributed at pivotal moments.

However, it's Ben Stokes improvement with the ball which has been the most exciting for club and country. Having upped his pace towards the high 80s, he's improved his consistency and started to cut out the regular four balls which blighted his game. Despite the Ashes call-up he may not quite ready for Test cricket, but if he can recapture his batting form of 2011, then he may become an increasingly rare visitor to the Chester-le-Street.

If the bowlers supposedly had it easy, then presumably Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick, both of whom passed 1000 first-class runs for the season, had seasons which deserve greater recognition. Stoneman, the likely successor to Collingwood in 2015, has improved his consistency immeasurably and improved hugely against spin. His adoption of Michael Di Veunto's number 23 shirt in tribute to his retired mentor found him finally score runs in a manner the great man would be proud.

Borthwick, who has gone from promising legspinner, playing at perhaps the worst possible ground to develop his trade, to consistent No.3 batsman, has been one of the more unexpected stories of the season and can count himself unlucky to miss out of the performance squad to Australia.

Yet despite the self-congratulation, 2014 will start with no small degree of uncertainty for Durham. There's undoubtedly the core of an exciting young squad there to work with, but with several out of contract members of the Championship winning squad set to leave - the underrated Will Smith is first to go as part of the cost cutting across the club - there will be a pressure for them to produce as consistently again, something which is by no means guaranteed.

It should not be forgotten that this side came together as much through necessity as design, with financial mismanagement and over-reaching manifesting itself as badly as any side in the country. The spectre of Lancashire's Championship win and subsequent relegation hangs heavy in the air, with Collingwood and the hopefully fit Dale Benkenstein not the batsman they once were.

With their final seasons in county cricket ahead and Onions not getting any younger, new leaders will need to buy into the successful ethos fostered over the last year. For all Durham's Championship win has been built up as a modern day parable, especially in the season that Surrey's excesses saw them relegated, the real test will be if a legacy has been created, one which can outlive the most remarkable of the sides Geoff Cook built.

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

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Posted by AckaBilk on (September 26, 2013, 22:14 GMT)

I agree with everything you have written, and I don't agree with the press a lot of the time

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Tiernan
James Tiernan is a Newcastle-based writer who divides his time between pontificating on cricket, football and music and teaching children the finer points of English literature. He watches Durham CCC in the summer, Sunderland AFC in the winter, and travels obscure musical trails all year round. Also contributes to the Durham Times. @jamestiernan

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