Champions Durham eye one-day improvement
Last year1st, CC Div 1; 3rd North Div, FLt20; 4th Group B, YB40.
2013 in a nutshellDurham celebrated their 21st birthday as a first-class club with their third County Championship title in six seasons. To make matters even more impressive, they did so with a squad with a strong team bond and drawn to a large extent from the community they represent.
Durham's success was the product of old-fashioned virtues: a long-term commitment to identifying the best young players in the region and developing them assiduously. In the shrewdest of captains in Paul Collingwood and a long-respected head coach, Geoff Cook, whose recovery from a heart attack in mid-season was a blessed relief, they had two cricketing figures of real stature.
The seaming pitches at Riverside helped but this was also a story about how young cricketers summoned great resolve to bring success to the north-east. If ever a county challenged cricket's tendency to rely upon a narrow talent pool, and emphasised the need to put down links in the whole of the community, it was Durham.
It will be harder for Durham this time around, especially if injuries take their toll on a small squad. Jon Lewis, the new head coach, has already bemoaned the lack of reinforcements after the release of Will Smith, Callum Thorp, Mitchell Claydon and Ruel Braithwaite, the retirement of Steve Harmison and departure of Dale Benkenstein to coach Hampshire. Add England's interest, to varying degrees, in Ben Stokes, Scott Borthwick, Graham Onions and Mark Wood and the concerns are understandable.
That could see more emphasis on one-day cricket. Stuart Poynter, the Ireland wicketkeeper, trialled late last season and will add some middle-order might to their hitting. Collingwood has also sought to offset the departure of Benkenstein by enticing Scotland's Calum Macloed over the border on what, initially at least, is a short-term contract.
John Hastings, the Australian all-rounder, has been brought in as an overseas player primarily to try to improve Durham's fortunes in limited-overs cricket - he is a bowler able to mix up his approach and will probably be used as a finisher with the bat - and will arrive as soon as his stint in IPL with Chennai Super Kings has come to an end. Durham calculate that his red-ball skills can mask Stokes' anticipated absence in Championship cricket, too.
The key player - or at least one of them - is missing in the most frustrating circumstances. Stokes' angry punch of a dressing room locker after a first-ball duck on England's tour of the West Indies resulted in an operation on a fractured wrist and an expected absence from the first six weeks of the season. With so much Championship cricket ahead of the first Test against Sri Lanka, for Durham it is a dreadful waste.
Bright young thing
It is a bit counterintuitive to praise Durham's player development and then identify an imported player as worthy of attention, but Stuart Poynter, brought over from Ireland at 23, is an intriguing signing. A former MCC Young Cricketer, he chose cricket ahead of hockey and although he has failed to quicken the interest of Middlesex and Warwickshire, he can find a niche for Durham in the one-day game.
Collingwood stays on as captain for a second full season, although England's obvious interest in bringing him into the inner sanctum - he is acting as fielding coach in World Twenty20 - does invite the question whether he will have his mind more set on coaching qualifications than his playing career come the end of the season. Geoff Cook has been shunted into player development, not entirely contentedly, which puts the onus on Lewis, his replacement, who stepped in after Cook's heart attack, to foster more of the same.
Durham took great delight in confounding the critics last season, winning the Championship when some had expected them to be relegated. For all their admirable qualities, they will confound this one if they repeat their Championship win, but may quietly settle for the top half of the table if they make a mark in Twenty20.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo