In-form Durham aim to secure title at home
Durham will retain the County Championship title - and collect £500,000 - if they gain 11 points from their match against Nottinghamshire which starts at Chester-le-Street on Wednesday. Nottinghamshire, and mathematically Somerset, are the only sides with an outside chance of overhauling the reigning champions, but it would take a monumental turnaround to deny Durham even if they don't secure the prize this week.
A draw over the next four days at Chester-le-Street along with seven bonus points (which can be gathered by dismissing Nottinghamshire inside 120 overs then scoring 350) would be enough to put Durham out of reach with two rounds still remaining. And this time the financial rewards are five times greater than in 2008 after the ECB increased the prize money to ensure the Championship remained the No. 1 trophy ahead of Twenty20.
Unlike last year, when the title race entered a gripping final week with Durham ultimately stealing the title as Nottinghamshire threw it away, this season has been a one-horse race since the start. However, Durham are not putting the champagne on ice yet and Geoff Cook, the coach, knows it's important to treat this match like any other.
"I think you've got to, you can't be looking anywhere else other than the start of the game and the first session," he told Cricinfo. "That's been how we've done it throughout the season, you try to be as competitive as you can right from ball one and hopefully the team will be able to take that with them into this match."
Durham have managed seven Championship victories so far this season - no mean feat during a damp summer - four more than the next best, and there has often been daylight between the quality of cricket played. Their success is based around a potent pace attack which includes Steve Harmison, Graham Onions and Liam Plunkett alongside the more unheralded Mark Davies, Mitchell Claydon and Callum Thorp. It has allowed them to speed matches forward and take weather out of the equation.
The depth in Durham's ranks will be tested again, though, with Thorp ruled out after picking up a back injury against Somerset, while Onions will miss the title run-in after being called into England's one-day squad. "It's nice for him to get further international recognition, but it's disappointing for us at this particular time when we are looking to be firing on all cylinders that we don't have his services," Cook said
Onions burst out of the blocks to give Durham a head start before his form earned him a Test place and he ends the season with 45 wickets at 15.28, while Harmison has 46 scalps at 19.19. The England pair are second and third in the Division One wicket-takers list, so Durham's success is no surprise.
"Our team has played some pretty strong cricket when it has mattered and the victories have been the result of some really top-class, competitive cricket," Cook said. "Graham got a terrific start the season, getting to 40 wickets very quickly, then he was absent and Steve Harmison picked up the mantle and he has been well supported by the other group of bowlers and they've very well as a unit."
However, while pace has been central to Durham's success their all-round strength has increased this season with the performances of Ian Blackwell, who moved north from Somerset in search of a new challenge, and responded with 707 runs at 41.58 and 31 wickets at 19.40, including an extraordinary 5 for 7 against his former club last week.
Like Nottinghamshire's Samit Patel, Blackwell doesn't fit the England mould, but he has shown this season that he shouldn't be forgotten. "He's been vital, both in four-day and one-day cricket," Cook said. "He's enjoyed the fresh environment and I think his performances so far reflect that."
Last season Durham beat Kent on the final day of the season to secure their maiden title, but had to wait until Nottinghamshire's demise against Hampshire for it to be officially confirmed, and celebrated on their long coach journey back from the South East. Their final two games this season are also away from home, so they have a chance to wrap up the title in front of home support this week, which would be fitting for the new power-house of Championship cricket.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo