By Paul Edwards
Jennings, Stoneman, Borthwick, Richardson, Stokes, Collingwood, Pringle, Coughlin, Wood, Rushworth, Onions. Anyone wondering about the impact of the last two years’ events on Durham’s cricket could do far worse than consider the eleven names above.
That team contains seven Test players and one – Paul Coughlin – who has a very respectable hope of achieving full representative honours.
Yet as the impact of the county’s financial problems became clear and the ECB imposed both relegation and sanctions on the club as the price for a financial bailout, five of those players left the club. Two others, Ben Stokes and Mark Wood, will be otherwise occupied in the Indian Premier League when Durham host Kent in their first Championship match of the season on April 20.
The departures of the top three in the order could perhaps have been foreseen but those of Coughlin and Graham Onions last September were surely less easy to predict and, one rather hopes, not part of the plan when the county was punished in October 2016.
It surely serves no purpose at all to reheat the debate over the sanctions – crisply dubbed a “kick in the nuts” by Collingwood – but subsequent events have reinforced the judgment of Durham’s first team coach, Jon Lewis, that it was naive in the extreme to think that their effect would last only one season.
Lewis has been left with the task of rebuilding Durham’s team and is realistic about a task which may take at least a couple more seasons.
“It’s going to happen every year, this,” he chuckles drily when asked about his changed squad and he then offers the valid point that at least Collingwood’s team will be going into the three competitions level on points with the sides around them this spring.
“Because we didn’t play many games at the start of last season we went into July still without a point in Division Two,” he said. “That’s tricky for the dressing room to see and you can’t say it doesn’t have any impact.”
Durham’s problems were exacerbated in the autumn when Jack Burnham failed a third drug test and received a one-year ban but Lewis takes solace from the fact that the absence of some players always gives opportunities to others.
“We lost four players really and none of them through our own choice,” he said. “They were all big players who need to be replaced but there’s always the positive when people walk that you can give chances to others.
“You can ask whether some of the successes of last year – Cameron Steel, Graham Clark, Matty Potts – would have had those opportunities if there hadn’t been a couple of departures the year before.
“I’m trying to put a positive spin on what is not a great situation but we hope to see opportunities for other players this year.
“We’ll still go into the season aiming to win all three competitions. We may not achieve it but that will be our aim. To get promotion would be good because that’s the one element of the sanctions that we can’t overcome in a heartbeat.
“We would have made the knockout stages of the 50-over competition last year but for the points deduction. There’s no reason why we can’t feel positive in all three competitions but we’re not going to focus on one over another.”
This is a vital time in Durham’s development. It is a time for those who remain at Emirates Riverside to show their loyalty to the club and for those who support it to show a measure of understanding. Club cricket in the North East is very powerful and Durham’s Academy was praised even as the county was receiving a six-of-the-best trousers-down thrashing.
Encouragement last year came from the emergence of 19-year-old Sunderland-born seamer Potts, whose 14 Championship wickets hardly reflected his promise and from the fine batting of Steel, who learned much of his cricket in Perth before coming to the county’s notice when playing for Durham MCCU.
Steel’s 899 Championship runs last season put him second only to Collingwood and he also became the county’s youngest double-centurion when he made 224 against Leicestershire at Grace Road.
“If people like Mark Stoneman or Scott Borthwick had stayed with us, Cameron may not have had that chance,” mused Lewis. “We knew what we were getting but he impressed people from the moment he walked in and his achievements were greater than we could have hoped for from his first year.
“Second years have a reputation of being tough but all the indications are that he will be in a good position at the start of the season.
“Matty was more impressive than his numbers but he was unfortunate in that he got the standard stress fracture in his back and he’s missed out on what would have been a really good winter for him. He couldn’t go on the England U19s tour to South Africa or to the World Cup in New Zealand.”
That mention of representative cricket is significant for, at a time when one might expect Durham to milk the Kolpak system for all its worth, Lewis regards the development of England cricketers as a criterion of his county’s emergence from the doldrums.
“The identity of the club has been based around producing players for England and it’s hard to go into a season without such players in your dressing room,” he said. “It will be a real achievement for Durham when we produce our next England or Lions player.
“When we start getting Lions players in the mix again we will feel that we’re starting to get back to where we should be or want to be. Obviously we need to win some games of cricket, win some trophies and get ourselves back in Division One. Those things may take a year or two.”
Indeed they may, but anyone who has covered Durham or watched club games in one of English cricket’s more distant heartlands is unlikely to bet against the county achieving its goal.
In the best sense, they relish a battle up here and one doubts they will shy away from this one.