Unlucky Northants stage plucky return
Durham 265 for 5 (Richardson 80, Mustard 63*, Jennings 54) v Northamptonshire
Far from bolstering their squad for a return to Division One of the County Championship, Northamptonshire have seen their options significantly squeezed by injury but they performed soundly on the opening day with defending champions Durham.
To lack both their leading wicket-takers of last season was not how Northants would want to have begun life back in Division One after a 10-year absence. Trent Copeland, a tremendous servant in 2013, could not obtain a work permit for this year and David Willey is not fit enough to bowl yet, although is in the XI so short are Northants on healthy bodies.
The 12 named for this match were almost the only fit players in the squad and after seeing their third option for an overseas player declined, Northants are in urgent need to add to their numbers. Rory Klienveldt, the South African seamer, was the latest to be prevented from travelling to Wantage Road after Cricket South Africa cancelled the deal because of a knee injury. Copeland fell foul of the tighter ECB regulations and Jackson Bird, initially unveiled as Northants' overseas player for 2014, suffered more back trouble - an ailment that could prove career-threatening.
But with an attack lacking obvious quality, Northants performed gamely having been asked to field first. Maurice Chambers, a winter recruit from Essex, was lively and took two wickets; Azharullah, the biggest surprise of 2013 having been plucked out of the Yorkshire leagues to star in T20 cricket, put up another solid display to match his efforts when he signed a full-time contract at the end of last season. The bustling Steven Crook, wily old Andrew Hall and James Middlebrook's offspinners completed the attack which nibbled away in decent batting conditions: a fairly slow wicket and a warm sunny day.
The left-arm variation of Willey would have been a useful option. Some early swing deceived Mark Stoneman into leaving an inswinger from Azharulla which clipped the top of off stump; Scott Borthwick was also trapped by inswing, Hall angling one into his pads from around the wicket. But as the swing disappeared, Michael Richardson shared two healthy partnerships to put Durham in a solid position.
But they could have dominated the day and may feel the top order has not done enough work with this XI featuring a longer tail than last season. Phil Mustard has to guide this innings much further if Durham are to take control. He played carefully for a 113-ball fifty.
Jennings and Richardson - who spent most of last season at No. 8 - shared 82 either side of lunch but both fell to poor strokes when well set. Jennings worked hard in the morning to earn the chance to play some more stokes in the afternoon. But after cutting the first ball of a new Chambers spell for four, he tried to force the next off a tighter line and edged to first slip. Richardson was equally careless, going back to cut Middlebrook and edging behind three balls before the second new ball was due. Paul Collingwood only lasted 16 balls against it before edging Chambers to third slip.
It would arguably be a greater feat if Collingwood can mastermind a second Championship success this year. Durham are also beginning a new season with a trimmed squad after allowing several players to leave owing to financial constraints - including former captain Will Smith, who was a member of all three teams who won the Championship.
But Northants can only blame sheer dumb luck for their losses. The cruellest injury befell Alex Wakley who set off for a single in a pre-season match in the Caribbean and snapped his Achilles tendon. He is out for six months although it will be in the one-day competitions where he is most missed; Wakley was captain of the victorious T20 side.
Veteran David Sales - who averaged 45.95 last season - and talented youngsters Rob Keogh and Ben Duckett* are all unavailable here. But on their first day of the new season it was Copeland and Willey who were most missed with the ball.
Both players were instrumental in the county's "best season ever" - the words of chief executive David Smith - in 2013. They defied a horrendous T20 record to win the Friends Life t20 and gained promotion with the 45 wickets Copeland and Willey each took a crucial facet. Copeland, the Australian right-hander, averaged just 18.26 and also 35.28 with the bat. Northants lower-order batting was a great asset last season and Willey played his part too.
*This article was updated at 11.10 on 14/04/2014 to correct the fact that Ben Duckett was unavailable for this match and not Rob Newton
Alex Winter is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo