TWENTY-FOUR hours before Durham’s season gets under way at Chester-le-Street, Stephen Harmison will be playing second-team cricket in Stokesley.
The bowler once ranked the best on the planet will turn out for the reserves in a friendly against Yorkshire this morning.
After two injury-hit seasons, Durham are anxious not to rush the Ashington Express into the action before he is ready.
With so many other bowling options, they have no need to do so.
So while Graham Onions, Callum Thorp, Mitchell Claydon and Ruel Brathwaite will be fighting over three spots in the team to face Nottinghamshire in the County Championship tomorrow, Harmison will be searching for match-fitness and rhythm at Marton.
The 33-year-old has always been a bowler who has needed overs under his belt to be at his best.
He missed the start of pre-season with injured ankle tendons after a freak accident during an indoor training drill.
He played in a two-day friendly, also against Yorkshire at the start of the month, where he received harsh treatment at the hands of Jonny Bairstow.
With Durham anxious to test Thorp’s fitness in his first proper cricket of the year, Harmison was left out of the final pre-season game at home to Durham University. Harmison, who is 66 short of Simon Brown’s record for the most first-class wickets for Durham, is realistic about the situation. He is adamant the team comes first.
He said: “My aim is to play cricket and stay fit.
“If that is 10 or 12 Championship games, so be it, I just want to contribute because I have not done that the last two years.
“I am not over the hill just yet. I have a big, big part to play in what will be a massive year for Durham County Cricket Club.”
Harmison will not be the only former England bowler on view, with Liam Plunkett set to share the new ball with him
Not for the first time, Plunkett remodelled his action in the winter after a 2011 in which he seemed to lose all confidence. The Teessider made just two Championship appearances last term, and in some one-day matches neither batted nor bowled.
The strength of Durham’s second-team today is an indication of their strength in depth at the start of the campaign.
Mark Stoneman and Gordon Muchall are set to bat in the top three despite having played important roles in the first-team last season. Stoneman is highly thought-of at Chester-le-Street and was second only to Dale Benkenstein in Durham’s Championship averages last term.
The left-hander broke his hand in the first game of the campaign and his return was held up by the form of Muchall and Will Smith. He hit three 50s and a century in eight innings.
Muchall topped Durham’s Pro40 averages with 67, although his form in all competitions tailed off in the second half of the campaign, as it often has.
Paul Collingwood’s unexpected release by Indian Premier League club Rajasthan Royals has made competition for batsmen as fierce as for the bowlers.
Even without the injured Mark Wood, the second-team attack will also feature Chris Rushworth. Despite his embarrassment of riches, coach Geoff Cook has promised not to rotate Durham’s squad for the sake of it.
With Ben Stokes, Scott Borthwick and Graham Onions all called up by England last season, and injuries inevitable during the long county season, opportunities for the fringe men are bound to arise if they are good enough to take them.
Cook said: “Everybody wants to play.
“There are certain people you want to play all the cricket and certain people you think will benefit from some resting and being more choosy about the cricket they play.
“It is not such a thing as a squad system, it is more how you handle the individuals involved.”
DURHAM 2ND TEAM (from): Stoneman, Raine, Muchall, Richardson, Plunkett, Coughlin, Clark, Buckley, Pringle, Harmison, Harrison, Rushworth.