The Agenda: Durham to begin defence of title with numbers thin on the ground

The fixtures will not be published until Tuesday and Durham’s opening game is not until late March, but the squad for 2014 is all but finalised. It does not take long to run down the list

Durham players celebrate winning the LV County Championship Division One title
Durham players celebrate winning the LV County Championship Division One title

Yet another Ashes series started in Brisbane last night, but this week’s first snowfalls of the winter were a reminder that the 2014 county cricket season is still a long way away.

The fixtures will not be published until Tuesday and Durham’s opening game is not until late March, but the squad for 2014 is all but finalised. It does not take long to run down the list.

Having released Stephen Harmison, Will Smith, Callum Thorp, Mitchell Claydon and Ruel Brathwaite at the end of their title-winning season, Durham’s squad will be positively skeletal when they head to Abu Dhabi for the season’s curtain-raiser against the MCC.

Even with the addition of the inexperienced Stuart Poynter and Graham Clark, it will number just 18 senior players. Three are on one-day contracts which will not stop them playing four-day cricket, but effectively assumes they will not.Durham used 18 players in last season’s County Championship First Division, less than any other side. Nottinghamshire fielded 19, the rest 20 or more. Only the Riversiders went without an overseas player.

Having over-performed last season to take a title few even within the club saw coming, Paul Collingwood’s young squad will have to do the same again, and a bit more.

“As we stand now we’re starting next season with a pretty basic squad of 18 people and it’s a very young squad as well as numerically challenged,” reflects coach Geoff Cook.

“The guys who did really well for us this year hopefully will have enjoyed it, but when March and April comes next year they will be ready to take up that responsibility again.”

Durham will surely not be put through what they were this year. As well as losing both captains to injury – Collingwood’s lasted five weeks, but Dale Benkenstein missed the final four months of the campaign – Cook suffered a mid-season cardiac arrest.

“The squad was tested,” he says with stunning understatement.

“Decisions had already been made on the experienced players (Michael Di Venuto and Ian Blackwell retired without being replaced) so we knew the experience levels were reduced, but the people we were hoping would make progress were excellent and really took on that responsibility.

“We’d said for a year or two (Ben) Stokes’ improvement was vital to keep the team balanced and he did just that, (Chris) Rushworth took the opportunity to bowl alongside Graham Onions and it proved a terrific combination.

“They gained in youth and vitality but lost a lot of experience and match-winning potential. But people stepped up and that’s how you progress.

“We knew if Onions was going to play most of the games at Chester-le-Street we’d have a good chance of winning the games and that’s how it proved.”

There will be similar uncertainty this winter. While Onions was overlooked for England’s tour of Australia, Stokes was not, and if the Cumbrian-raised all-rounder forces his way into the Test team in the coming weeks, Durham will see little of him in 2014.

How Benkenstein recovers from his shoulder operation, along with his South African family’s homesickness, will determine whether he returns for a final season. Either coming off the wage bill would create a need and an ability for replacements.

Breaking up the team which won back-to-back titles in 2008-09 was, Cook admits, tough.

“When I started (as head coach in 2007), the team was at a very low ebb,” he recalls.

“Thanfully Dale took over as captain and he and Paul Collingwood have been absolute rocks to lean on and gain confidence from.

“We sustained a period of success really because of the terrific experience within the team, people like Stephen Harmison, Michael Di Venuto, Dale Benkenstein, and we were able to add some talented young players – Kyle Coetzer, Phil Mustard, Graham Onions.

“It gave us a really good group and that probably ran tired a year or two back. That’s worked its way through and now we’ve got a very young squad.

“Telling people they no longer have a future here is very tough. I think some people find it easier than others but if you get close to the players and feel emotionally for them, that becomes difficult because generally in sport if you go on into yourmid-30s you’ve done really well and then you have to start your life all over again.

“Very often the money you earn doesn’t allow you to do that too comfortably. Anybody with a degree of sensitivity feels for those people.”

Looking after the likes of Harmison and Collingwood after their England careers has been an expensive business. Although it is making his job harder, Cook thinks it was the right thing to do.

“Durham has been excellent in the way they’ve helped players through that stage of their careers,” he says.

“If they’ve achieved well they’ve been rewarded in that latter stage of their career and that’s how it should be.

“We had to adopt their England salaries to a large extent when they came back into the ranks. Now we’ve got players starting on that cycle.

“If you’re financially better blessed than we are now you can make those contingency plans and look a little bit into the crystal ball and say we could well be losing him, we’ll try and make sure we have cover.”

Right now, there is no such luxury.

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