County Championship. Durham v Notts at the Emirates Riverside. April 14-17.
While there may have been a few County Championship matches over the last weekend the season truly begins on Friday with Nottinghamshire traveling to the Emirates Riverside. Despite the injustices of last year and the -48 point start that is casting a large shadow over the new season there is still room for optimism and excitement at Chester-le-Street. In separate interviews since the club’s media day last week coach John Lewis, Graham Onions and Paul Collingwood have talked up chances of achieving promotion this year and when comparing the quality of Durham’s squad with the rest of the division it does feel as if only the weather will stop a serious challenge.
A further reason for excitement around the Notts game in particular is the fact that, for both counties, this is likely to be the most competitive game of the season. Nottinghamshire have already put Leicestershire to the sword (despite a heroic performance from former Durham allrounder Ben Raine) in a display which highlighted just how effective their bowling attack will be with the addition of Australian international James Pattinson as well as the potential appearance of Jake Ball and Stuart Broad, who Notts are appealing to England to release for the game. However, while Notts’ cruise against Leicestershire emphasises the quality of their seam bowling it did perhaps mask their weaknesses at the top order with the only half centuries in the side coming from the aforementioned Pattinson and Broad who put on a crucial 122 runs for the eighth wicket.
Without a fixture last week, Durham instead played their annual warmup against Durham MCCU and it proved a very effective game for providing form for the top five as well as the seamers. Two batsman with something to prove after disappointing seasons last year are Jack Burnham and Michael Richardson. Burnham had some bright moments in his first full season as a first teamer but could not find any real consistency – largely due to the unfortunate nature of the calendar in regards to one day and t20 cricket – but this year there are real hopes that he will properly announce himself as one of the most talented young batsmen in the country, along with the likes of Dan Lawrence and Aneurin Donald who were his team mates at the last under-19 world cup. For Richardson, last season was even more disappointing, an extremely lean year following the steady performances he had provided since 2013. Furthermore, Richardson also found himself replaced as wicketkeeper by Stuart Poynter towards the end of last season in order to help him find some form. All in all this will be a crucial year for him as his future at the club will surely be in doubt if he cannot be a reliable, experienced head in a youthful line-up. From the point of view of these two players then the warm up against the students was extremely valuable with Jack Burnham hitting a brutal 150 in the first innings, mostly alongside Richardson who scored 116 coming in at four.
The use of Burnham at three potentially gives an insight into the amount of faith Durham will be putting in the 20-year-old this year and there will be a real hope that he can be the man to fill the void left by Scott Borthwick’s absence. Of further interest was the inclusion of Cameron Steel and Graham Clark. Steel is formerly of Durham University and was acquired from Middlesex last season after he was pushed out of their squad due to Nick Compton’s availability. Without knowing how highly Durham’s coaches thought of him it seemed from the outside that he was a promising young player who was likely destined to have a year in the 2nd XI. However his 82 in the second innings as well as prominence in the preseason matches in the UAE suggest he may well get an opportunity this year. Although there will not be an opening spot for him against Notts it is possible that he makes his Championship debut for the club at three. Graham Clark also impressed with the bat in this game after coming back into the side at the end of last year. A good 50 followed by a score of 125 in the ongoing 2nd XI match against a combined Essex and Kent side suggest promising form although his inclusion with the 2nd XI may hint that he will not be playing on Friday.
Further positivity around Durham’s batting was provided on Sunday as South African international Stephen Cook arrived in the North East. Cook on paper is an outstanding signing with a wealth of experience in domestic cricket for the Highveld Lions as well as in international cricket since his debut century against England over the 2015/2016 winter. In addition to this Cook has extra motivation to pile on the runs with his place at the top of the order under serious threat after he was dropped during the New Zealand series. Hopefully he will put on a show in Division 2 and be facing off against his Durham partner Keaton Jennings when South Africa tour England later this summer. In fact it is worth pondering on the fact that Durham’s opening partnership for the first half of this season will be Jennings and Cook, arguably the best pairing in both Divisions.
Despite the batting form gained against Durham University the headlines from this match went to the performances of Graham Onions (4 for 3) and Mark Wood (4 for 6) on the final day as the students were all out for 63. The bowling was also notable for some superb economy rates and spinner Ryan Pringle continuing where he left off against Hampshire with 4 wickets in the first innings. Even without Chris Rushworth Durham’s bowlers were ruthless but it is unlikely his place in the side will be under threat from Brydon Carse at this stage.
Durham: Jennings, Cook, Burnham, Richardson, Collingwood, Coughlin, Poynter, Pringle, Wood, Onions, Rushworth.
Nottinghamshire: Smith, Libby, Lumb, Hales, Wessels, Patel, Read, Pattinson, Ball, Fletcher, Gurney.
*Stuart Broad could play instead of Fletcher or Gurney if Notts’ appeal to the ECB is successful.