Durham have been warned to expect a tougher County Championship Division One next year, but the fixture list offers the chance to build early momentum as they set out to defend their trophy.
The Riversiders’ last five Championship games of 2014 see them face Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Middlesex, Northamptonshire and Middlesex in the space of six tough weeks. The flip-side is a less taxing start.
After sitting out the opening round of games they start their defence at newly-promoted Northamptonshire on April 13, and play Somerset, who struggled last season, home and away before June. Marcus Trescothick’s side are visitors for the opening home game, on April 20.
Durham have not played Championship cricket at Northampton’s County Ground since a 2005 draw there in Division Two. But they were last at the east Midlands ground for this year’s Twenty20 Cup quarter-finals, which the hosts won comfortably on their way to the trophy.
“They had a brilliant season last year winning the Twenty20 Cup and eventually getting promotion,” said Durham coach Cook, who had 20 seasons with Northamptonshire.
“They’re a team that probably should be in the first division when you look at their personnel. They’ve made one or two good additions in preparation for next season, and it will be a tough game.
“No disrespect to Surrey and Derbyshire (relegated this year) but I think the first division will be stronger next season for the addition of Northants and Lancashire.”
Northamptonshire have added Australia fast bowler Jackson Bird, Maurice Chambers and Graeme White to a squad which already included former Durham opener Kyle Coetzer. All-rounder David Willey (pictured left), son of Sedgefield-born former England international Peter, was one of last season’s star performers. He was sent home yesterday from the England Performance Programme’s tour of Australia with a back injury.
There have been significant changes to the county format this season, with Twenty20 Cup games spread across the summer, mainly on Friday nights, and the teams reorganised into two groups. To underline the point, the first of Durham’s 14 group games is at home to Worcestershire on May 16.
Some opponents are played twice others, like Warwickshire – rebranded as Birmingham Bears – once.
The CB40 has been abandoned in favour of a late-season 50-over competition to better prepare players for one-day international cricket.
The end of one limited-overs competition and the start of the other means Durham will not have any Championship cricket between July 17 and August 15.
Generally, Cook is happy with the new look.
“Overall it’s a much healthier-looking fixture list,” he reflected.
“From a Twenty20 perspective the downside for the spectators is the star players won’t be coming in for a quick surge of the tournament. But that means there will be greater opportunities for English players, so that’s a good thing.
“The four-day cricket looks a good spread compared to last season, when we had four games in April (as opposed to two this year).
“I don’t think you’re ever going to get a perfect balance but to have the 50-over competition starting in late July is probably a good thing. If counties have fallen out of the Twenty20 Cup and are struggling in the Championship it gives them wsomething else to play for.
“We’ll be going from 40-over to 50-over cricket, which will replicate one-day international cricket. It will be a new game with different fielding restrictions and two new balls, so that should create some interest.”