Durham cool on repeat success
Anyone who claims that they tipped Durham to not so much walk but breezily jog away with the County Championship last season is a liar or failing that, a lunatic. This would have seemed even more ridiculous at the end of April when their top four batsmen were struggling to average double figures, coupled with a financial situation befitting their long term association with Northern Rock. The repercussions of overspending, even in the context of regular international fixtures at the Riverside, was by no means atypical but from last season's points deduction to the obvious lack of depth to this year's squad, it will remain a long term issue.
Yet the improbable and much-analysed journey after Geoff Cook's heart attack and subsequent recovery, which will inevitably rank amongst the great never-to-be-made TV movie biopics, have very much muddied the waters as to this season's realistic expectations. While the fearless young players who unexpectedly became regulars are now a year older and wiser, the need to trim the bloated wage bill, something the board have managed with a ruthless streak of which Gideon Osborne would be proud, has left the squad looking thinner than ex-Durham man David Warner's chances of winning "Australian Man of Tact and Subtlety 2014".
Durham's primary concern in defending their title or even banishing the spectre of Lancashire's recent spectacular double - title win followed by relegation - is primarily the shocking lack of depth in their batting. To lose one experienced former captain from the middle order may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. Yet, having released the dependable and eminently likeable Will Smith in order to save money and the later entirely predictable departure of the disgruntled Dale Benkenstein, who had looked a nigh on certainty to be Cook's long term replacement after stepping down as captain in 2009, the club appeared to have been left scratching their head and sighing like a man who has managed to lock himself out of his own house in only his dressing gown at how fragile it looks.
In what remains of the middle order, there's Paul Collingwood, who has been keeping generators of synonyms for "gritty" busy for the last 15 years and is one of the few genuinely tactically astute leaders in the county game. Come 2015, his void in the dressing room will be an incalculable loss, but even he has acknowledged that he is in decline as a batsman. On the upside, his long term replacement and new limited overs skipper Mark Stoneman looks to have finally fulfilled his potential as a junior Michael Di Venuto, while Keaton Jennings and Michael Richardson are maturing into the finest pair of sons of former South African Test keepers playing together in world cricket. Scott Borthwick's performances with the bat at No. 3 were an undoubted highlight of 2013 but there are inevitable fears that he will start the first Test of the summer in England's forthcoming spinner roulette.
This batting weakness is only compounded by the absence of Ben Stokes, who ended his winter solar-red faced as he Jesse Ryder-ed his hand in missing the World T20 debacle but more significantly the start of the county season. His loss is one which Durham will struggle to replace, with his nominal post-IPL replacement coming in the form of Australian one-Test wonder John Hastings, the most famous qualified PE teacher to appear in the region since Brendan Foster. Hastings is a Big Bash star but the surge of traffic to his profile page from the North East would have been comparable to the Test debut of Darren Pattinson.
Hastings hardly fits into the same allrounder category as Stokes, yet it's these well-rounded cricketers/bits and pieces youngsters (delete as success dictates) on whom much will rest. Usman Arshad's emergence at the end of the season, where he managed to average 28.33 with the bat and take 16 wickets at 15.56 should see him start in the lower-middle order. One-day regular Ryan Pringle will also press for a place, as may Paul Coughlin whose 2013 was ruined by injury.
Much will be expected of England Lions' Mark Wood, with his improbable height-to-pace ratio and the skiddy left-arm of Jamie Harrison. Chris Rushworth's nagging line and length will be vital, especially if Durham lose Graham Onions, undoubtedly the best bowler in the 2013 Championship, to England duty. While Durham have intermittently coped with his loss to glumly carry drinks around the nation's Test venues, it would seem incredibly unlikely for them to retain their title without him for the bulk of the season.
But as England head towards a summer of uncertainty and one might reasonably expect one of experimentation under a new coach, Durham's fortunes may well come down to luck with injuries and the whims of ECB selectors. At least this year, expectations may extend a little beyond mere survival.
James Tiernan writes on cricket, football and music for almost anyone who asks nicely. He tweets here