The Agenda: England's rebuilding leaves Durham uncertain about their future

A surfeit of would-be coaches could leave Durham short of players for 2014. Stuart Rayner on a period of uncertainty

Dale Benkenstein (left) has joined Hampshire, while Paul Collingwood could be involved in the England coaching set-up
Dale Benkenstein (left) has joined Hampshire, while Paul Collingwood could be involved in the England coaching set-up

English cricket is in a state of flux, and Durham have been caught in it.

Wednesday’s announcement that Paul Collingwood is to be seconded on to England’s coaching set-up was a worrying development for the Riversiders. The news less than 24 hours later that Dale Benkenstein is Hampshire’s new coach compounded it.

Thirty-seven days before their season starts in Abu Dhabi, Durham’s plans are in a state of confusion.

Although Collingwood is due back from international duty before or during the final County Championship warm-up game against Durham University (depending on England’s progress), he is in the frame for more permanent involvement be it, as he hopes, as head coach, or as fielding, batting or limited-overs coach.

Benkenstein would have been Collingwood’s natural replacement but – to no great surprise – that option has been taken away. Mark Stoneman will replace the South African as limited-overs captain, but could find he is fast-tracked into the four-day job ahead of schedule.

Ben Stokes will be a key part of England’s reshaped team, while Graham Onions and Scott Borthwick hope to be. But that will depend on the identity of the new coach, and that is unlikely to be known before the start of next season.

In the meantime Durham, who released five players in the winter, have to put a squad together. At the moment they have 17 senior players, three on limited-overs contracts.

Chief executive David Harker is already ruing Will Smith’s departure, saying: “I think it would be fair to say if we had known then what we know now we would not have allowed Will to leave (also for Hampshire).

“Paul’s effectively seconded to the ECB for six weeks. He comes back to us as a player for the end of pre-season. The ECB have committed to a process of recruitment for a first team coach and Paul is pushing to be a candidate. We can’t worry about it until it happens.

“Whether or not they would see Paul as part of the new set-up we will have to wait and see, but I know Paul’s committed to see out his Durham contract (which expires at the end of the season).”

At the end of last season Collingwood had accepted 2014 would be his final year as a Durham player. But his success coaching Scotland this winter could mean he follows Benkenstein’s lead and finishes a year early. Assistant coach for Scotland’s unsuccessful pre-Christmas World Twenty20 qualifying campaign, he was promoted to joint coach for the tournament to reach the 50-over World Cup. Scotland won it.

On the back of his brilliant captaincy of Durham’s County Championship-winning side, it underlined he has qualities England need.

Stokes’ performances in Australia have guaranteed the Cumbrian-raised all-rounder will, fitness permitting, be a regular in all forms of international cricket this year, regardless of the coach. England know that, Durham know that.

But until England award him a central contract, taking Stokes off Durham’s wage bill, the county will not have the funds to replace him.

“Everyone is expecting he will be involved,” Harker concedes. “We’re speaking to the ECB about it.

“It’s unusual for them to grant contracts at this stage of the year (it is normally September) but it’s unusual circumstances for everyone. We’re speaking to the ECB to make sure they appreciate Ben’s importance to us as an all-rounder.

“If we’re not going to see him next season we need to prepare, but I’m sure the ECB will be reluctant to hand out contracts in the absence of a head coach.”

Graeme Swann’s retirement and the cancelling of Kevin Pietersen’s contract means there is room on England’s wage bill. Making that commitment would be a sign that, contrary to popular belief, England’s management do give a damn about county cricket. But diplomatically, it is another decision which should probably be left to the new coach.

Last year’s success woke England’s selectors up to the next wave of cricketers emerging at Chester-le-Street. Leg-spinner Borthwick made his Test debut in the winter’s final Ashes match and when Mark Wood injured his side after a promising start to England Lions’ tour of Sri Lanka, Onions was called to replace him.

“It’s the price of success,” Harker says. “The team has done really well. We’re being encouraged to run with a smaller squad, which is fine, but if we’re going to lose potentially three of our big players in Ben Stokes, Scott Borthwick and Graham Onions that makes it much more difficult.”

The beginning of the end for Benkenstein, the club’s record First-Class run-scorer and most successful captain, came with Geoff Cook’s heart attack last June.

It happened hours before the meeting at which Benkenstein, recuperating from a dislocated shoulder, was to be made the county’s Twenty20 coach for the summer. Once Cook was incapacitated, Durham had to find an interim four-day coach too, and their choice, Jon Lewis, insisted on control of all first-team cricket. It proved an inspired choice and has been made permanent.

Benkenstein returned to South Africa to have an operation, coming back only to watch the Ashes Test at Chester-le-Street. When Durham won the title, he was working as a batting consultant in Natal.

The announcement of his appointment in South Africa – in keeping with the way things are run at Chester-le-Street, made long before Durham acknowledged it – talked of Benkenstein’s Durham career as over despite the year left on his contract, and of his family’s homesickness.

“With Jon Lewis taking over from Geoff the step into a coaching role wasn’t there for him and this was due to be his last season,” says Harker. “He wanted to go into coaching and if that couldn’t practically be accommodated at Durham, he had to consider whether to look elsewhere.

“If Paul hadn’t had the opportunity to be part of the England set-up we might have had the same issue with him. We simply can’t carry enough coaches to keep everyone happy.”

From having more would-be coaches than they know what to do with, Durham could easily find themselves short of players next season.

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Stuart Rayner
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