When it comes to winning four-day cricket matches, Durham are struggling right now, but England’s newest First-Class county are still as good as ever at producing international cricketers.
So much so that Paul Collingwood believes the county have unearthed a “perfect” player for the new direction England plan to move in.
Ben Stokes and Scott Borthwick were the new blood in Andy Flower’s final Test match as England coach, and fast bowler Mark Wood is exciting those looking to the future under Peter Moores.
But Mark Stoneman’s 187 at Chester-le-Street this week only underlined to Collingwood why England should select the left-handed opener in their squad for the first Test against Sri Lanka this morning. They will almost certainly not – his form has probably been too erratic this season – but it shows what a good finishing school Durham remains for the England team.
Stoneman and Borthwick’s career-best scores this week – the leg-spinner made 213 – were a significant step forward. Borthwick hurdled the mental barrier of scoring County Championship centuries last season, Stoneman earlier still, but turning them into something more substantial has been beyond them.
“I’m delighted for them,” said Collingwood, capped 300 times by his country in all forms of the game and the proud owner of an Ashes double-hundred. “I said a few weeks ago Rocky (Stoneman) never really gets a mention when it comes to England. If it’s going to take 180s and 190s to tap on the selectors shoulders, that’s what it needs.
“Rocky so far this season has been under 12 or he’s gone on to get a big score (with only one exception). It’s great that when they do get in they’re making it count.
“The way he plays is quite attacking so you’re not going to get the overall consistency of a dead-pan opening batsman. But if England say they want to play an attacking brand of cricket, a player like him is absolutely perfect because he’s not the kind of player who will have 30 off 30 overs seeing off the new ball, he’ll take opening bowlers on. He’s shining out in the county scene and if England want to play a brand of attacking cricket, he’s the one to do it.”
Sadly, Stoneman and Borthwick’s efforts were in vain as Durham were again beaten by the elements. Seven games into the season they are yet to win a Championship match, although they have only lost one. They at least took maximum points from the contest, lifting them to sixth in Division One, having played a game more than Warwickshire.
In the middle of the afternoon the 1.30pm decision by umpires Jeff Evans and Tim Robinson to call the game off looked somewhat premature, although the pitch was so slow on Tuesday, Durham would probably still have struggled to take eight wickets on it in half a day.
As the league table shows, the pitches the Riversiders have played on this season have not been great for producing results – when they have been conducive the weather has not been – but it has made them ideal for preparing North East youngsters for the Test arena.
“This is the best education possibly in the world, in terms of teaching you how to play international cricket – the surfaces you play on, all that kind of stuff,” commented Collingwood. “You’ll fail at times but you’ve got to teach yourself to overcome the failures.”
Just as much as Borthwick and Stoneman’s runs, the last spell of Mark Wood’s 4-75 shows he has the craft as well as the pace to be a Test bowler – if only he can stay consistently fit.
“I think what you’re seeing is he’s got good skills,” said Collingwood. “He can get serious pace and carry when the ball’s swinging around.
“He has got skill - he can swing the ball both ways – and with a bouncer like that in his armoury he’s going to cause some problems.
“Bowlers like that get good players out and the way he got (Sam) Robson out shows he’s got something extra.”
But Durham are not only about producing players for England, the other half of their mission when they came into First-Class cricket 22 years ago was to win things.
“I am a lot happier, a lot more confident about taking 20 wickets,” Collingwood reflected. “The bowlers we had in this match would have been able to do that on this surface. With the bowling we are improving and certainly getting closer to where we should be. I guess the only area of our game that we need to improve on – and we all know this – is our catching.
“We are getting very close as a team to getting results.
“You can see the culture in the dressing room is one where people want to get better. There’s no standing around saying they’re happy with where they are. Every single player in the dressing room, including myself, want to keep improving. I’m confident that culture will continue in the future.”
Collingwood’s chances of success will be greater when his main bowler, Graham Onions, returns from a back injury, worrying because he missed the whole of 2010 with a problem there. The Gateshead fast bowler will have another scan on Monday, and an appointment with a specialist on Tuesday.
“Graham has done well to get back from his back injury a couple of years ago so whenever there’s any stiffness around there it’s always going to be frustrating for him,” said Collingwood.
“It’s just one of those cases of ensuring we get him back to 100%, to where he was. It might take time and it’s a day-to-day thing. But I am sure he will be back in the future.
“He works so hard to get back to his very best. He’s done it once and I am sure he will do it again.”
Sadly – for England as much as for him – Onions’ international career looks as if it may have run its course. The performances of Durham’s youngsters this week suggests there will soon be others following in his footsteps.