The Agenda: How are Durham likely to shape up next season?

Durham can expect another quiet winter in the transfer market but two contract extensions yesterday were an indication that nothing is standing still

Durham captain Paul Collingwood and team celebrate winning the LV County Championship Division One title
Durham captain Paul Collingwood and team celebrate winning the LV County Championship Division One title

There is a school of thought in sporting circles which says you should recruit from a position of strength.

Durham County Cricket Club’s long-serving coach Geoff Cook knows that as well as anyone, but he will be unable to follow the mantra.

Two new players have signed up for next season but when that kicks off, in the unlikely surroundings of Abu Dhabi in March, Durham’s squad will be weaker than the one which walked off with the 2013 County Championship – on paper at least.

Financial reality has hit Durham hard.

In early 2012 their biggest challenge was keeping the wage bill below county cricket’s salary cap. They failed, albeit narrowly.

Next season they will be way under and that is almost certainly how it will stay.

Durham won their first Championship in 2008. The history of the two-division Championship shows its winners are more likely to be relegated the next season than retain the pennant.

In September, Cook explained how the Riversiders bucked that trend.

He said: “We gave the team the target of winning it in consecutive years, which they did.

“We recruited well with (Ian) Blackwell and we were a good team.”

Incredibly, Blackwell remains the last player Durham signed from another county.

After more first-class wickets than a Durham spinner has managed in a season (47) and more than 800 Championship runs, it was no surprise to see the new boy named Durham’s player of 2009. His arrival gave impetus and hunger to a talented squad.

Stu Forster/Getty Images Durham coach Geoff Cook (r) and captain Paul Collingwood
Durham coach Geoff Cook (r) and captain Paul Collingwood
 

There were no new recruits for 2010 and no hat-trick of titles either. The moral of the story was clear: teams which stand still go backwards.

There will be no Blackwell this winter.

MCC Young Cricketers Stuart Poynter and Graham Clark have joined, but it is hard to see either being anything more than fringe players.

They hardly make up for the loss of Will Smith and Callum Thorp – key members of this year’s team – never mind Mitchell Claydon, Ruel Braithwaite and Stephen Harmison who went with them.

If Poynter and Clark are not to be the only recruits one of three things will have to happen.

Someone must be taken off the wage bill – Ben Stokes earning an England central contract or Dale Benkenstein retiring a year ahead of schedule are most likely – a rich sugar daddy will have to appear over the horizon or Cook’s numbers will need to come up on the Lottery. For now Durham have to concentrate on making the most of what they have.

Fortunately, there is plenty of scope for improvement – not only among the playing but also the coaching teams.

The current squad is far more youthful than its 2008 counterpart.

Cook added: “Two have only put their toe in the water.

“(Usman) Arshad’s only played three games, (Jamie) Harrison half a dozen, (Keaton) Jennings no more than a season.

“As long as the ambition is there they have the ability to take themselves forward.”

Durham are doing their best to ensure the talent they have nurtured stays in the North East.

Yesterday Jennings signed a new contract which will take him to 2015, Phil Mustard an extension which runs to 2016.

Harrison and Arshad have already been rewarded for their parts in the Championship win.

When Blackwell followed Michael Di Venuto into retirement last winter, the process of slashing the squad’s average age began.

Harmison did not bowl a ball in anger last year, while injury ended Benkenstein’s season in May.

A succession of youngsters upped their game to fill the gap. That will have to happen again in 2014.

Jon Lewis
Jon Lewis
 

The big changes off the field are yet to happen.

At 62, the end of Cook’s glorious career is nigh.

A heart attack in the summer was a dry run for how Durham would cope without the most influential figure in their first-class history – and they did so admirably.

The plan is for Cook to retain control of coaching next season, but plans for his succession must be formulated and the structure may be rejigged for 2014 as a first step.

As on the playing side, the emphasis is likely to be on seeking solutions from within, although there have been suggestions a former player, Ottis Gibson, could also come into consideration.

Second-team coach Jon Lewis was a brilliant understudy for Cook in the second half of the season, serenely guiding Durham to the title as if nothing had happened.

Cook’s assistant Alan Walker played a crucial role too.

Sending Lewis back to his old job will test a loyalty which has stood firm for 16 years. Glamorgan’s coaching vacancy offers an alternative.

One-day captain Benkenstein and four-day skipper Paul Collingwood have dipped their toes into coaching this winter – Benkenstein in his native Natal, Collingwood as part of Scotland’s coaching staff.

Both are out of contract next autumn and would love to succeed Cook if the conditions are right.

Benkenstein’s admission of family homesickness may pull him out of the running, while Collingwood must hope no one jumps into Cook’s seat in the next 12 months before he is ready to.

Harmison this week suggested Collingwood should be the man to fill the void when limited-overs coach Ashley Giles steps up to replace Andy Flower as head of England’s Test team.

Yet one thing is clear – while there may not be any more transfer activity at Durham this winter, things are far from standing still.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer