LAST week was a pretty miserable one for Durham. Ben Stokes and Dale Benkenstein picked up new, more serious, injuries on top of those they were already carrying.
LAST week was a pretty miserable one for Durham. Ben Stokes and Dale Benkenstein picked up new, more serious, injuries on top of those they were already carrying. Mitchell Johnson had to pull out of his job as one of the county’s overseas Twenty20 players.
And when the rain relented long enough, Somerset took control of the County Championship game at Chester-le-Street.
A bad start to the season was getting worse for a team heavily tipped to be lifting the Division One title, not fighting relegation.
Two cricketless days ensured the working week ended less a damp squib, more a soaking wet one.
Then, on Saturday, the sun finally emerged and things began to brighten up just a little.
All six of Durham’s top-order batsmen made their highest score of the season at the weekend. Granted, in the case of those who did it in the Championship game, it was not saying much.
Michael Di Venuto, Paul Collingwood and Mark Stoneman got into their mid-30s, then got out.
Ian Blackwell’s was a match-saving 38 not out but he was denied an opportunity to build on it. As he batted the decision was being made to drop him for the following day’s 40-over game because of his lack of mobility in the field.
It was, though, as four-day captain Phil Mustard acknowledged “a step in the right direction”.
Durham were still in the relegation zone, but had leapfrogged champions Lancashire with a slightly fortunate but invaluable draw.
Sunday was more positive again, as two important landmarks were belatedly reached.
Finally Durham had their first win this season, beating Somerset by 14 runs. At last, a specialist batsman reached 50, two in fact – Gordon Muchall and Will Smith. There were encouraging performances from two bowlers yet to play this season – four-wicket Liam Plunkett and 21-year-old debutant Jamie Harrison, who took two.
With Graham Onions at times doing his best impersonation of a one-man team, bowling has been Durham’s strong suit during a difficult start to the campaign. But hours after he had been taken away to carry England’s drinks for a couple of weeks, two players stepped forward to replace him.
Muchall, Smith, Plunkett and Harrison will all have to build on their performances in another 40-over game at Surrey on Sunday if they are to count for anything in the long run.
But it was the first hint that all the pre-season talk about the strength of Durham’s squad could be backed up with actions.
With no Stokes, Benkenstein or Onions for next week’s trip to Taunton, there are openings in the four-day team.
Smith is the only member of Sunday’s starring quartet from the group of 12 who played in Durham’s first three games. At that stage the team picked itself – had Collingwood not missed the opener against Nottinghamshire through illness, it would have been 11.
The time is coming when Durham need to reinvigorate their side.
Di Venuto, Benkenstein, Collingwood, Blackwell and Callum Thorp are quality players, but cannot be allowed to grow old together.
So far only Stephen Harmison – younger than all of them at 33 – appears to have fallen by the wayside.
The lack of any second-team cricket this week has denied Harmison an opportunity to respond to Plunkett and Harrison skipping ahead of him in the queue.
He had bowled just 111 balls for the second team this year, taking only one wicket.
His time may yet come again, but the former world’s No.1 Test bowler knows as well as anyone he must find some rhythm before that can happen.
Fresh faces are needed, whether to kick-start or replace the old guard. The three absentees mean they can be introduced to the Championship side without yet having to upset anyone.