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Simply dynamite!

Blackwell acquisition and captaincy transition pivotal to success

Ian Ward Posted 11th September 2009 view comments

Durham's second consecutive Championship triumph is proof that they are a club going in the right direction in every way, sense and form.

Their transformation from strugglers to champions is, to my mind, the success story of English domestic cricket over the last decade.

There has always been a very strong pool of talent in the North-east but the club was thrown in at the deep end when they were given first-class status in 1991.

Succession planning: Smith and Benkenstein have dovetailed perfectly

Succession planning: Smith and Benkenstein have dovetailed perfectly

They managed to import the likes of Ian Botham, Wayne Larkins and Dean Jones to support their talented youngsters but Durham were still the whipping boys for a number of years.

In subsequent years players like Simon Brown and Paul Collingwood really had to scrap to work out what first-class cricket was all about and in the long run that battling spirit has paid off in spades.

Talent

Durham have now succeeded to such an extent that I'd say they are the envy of pretty much every county in the land.

Their blueprint has been faultless. Other clubs, like Surrey, have tried to develop their stadia while chasing success on the pitch but have not been able to juggle both.

The Oval is now a fabulous Test arena but the Londoners have completely lost their way in terms of bringing talent through and getting results on the field.

In contrast, Durham have not only produced a stunning Test venue, but are also winning titles and producing players for England. Their achievements are nothing short of remarkable.

Stellar

After winning their maiden Championship title last season, I'm sure Geoff Cook sat down with Dale Benkenstein, the then captain, and his successor Will Smith to work out a strategy for defending their crown.

The acquisition of Ian Blackwell, who has scored over 700 runs at around 40 at a decent rate, was nothing short of a masterstroke because he's also added an extra dimension to the team with his spin, even if the Riverside is not always a spin-friendly pitch.

The team's core has stayed the same and, by and large, all of the key players have avoided lengthy injury thanks in no small part to the depth of the squad.

There's no doubt that Durham have got a terrific battery of fast bowlers, meaning that with careful rotation they can go into a greater number of games with a much fresher pace attack - something that is hugely significant in the daily grind of Championship cricket.

When Steve Harmison and Graham Onions have been on England duty, the likes of Liam Plunkett, Callum Thorp, Mark Davies and Mitchell Claydon have all stepped up eager to prove they deserve a long run.

Harmison and Onions also had points to prove, albeit to the England selectors. With one eye on the Ashes, both were in devastating form in June when they took 47 wickets between them to spur Durham to three straight Championship wins. Durham haven't looked back since.

The batsmen have also delivered too. Michael Di Venuto may be nearer the end of his career than the beginning but, by sidestepping one-day cricket, he's enjoyed another stellar season that has yielded over 1,400 runs.

Benkenstein, back in the ranks, has thrived while Shivnarine Chanderpaul's timely, run-heavy return at the end of a long summer has maintained the healthy impetus.

Transition

At the start of the season, I wondered how Smith would cope with captaincy and the truth is he's done exceptionally well.

Two things have helped him in particular. With Benkenstein on the field and performing well, he has someone to turn to when things start to drift. Plus, he's benefitted from having a settled squad to work with. 'Plan A' has worked well all of the way through.

I'd suggest Smith's form is something of a concern, because he's averaging less than 30, but once he's got this season under his belt I imagine there will be a big sigh of relief that the captaincy transition has worked.

The challenge for him next season is simple: defend the Championship, improve Durham's fortunes in one-day cricket AND score some runs himself!

As Andrew Strauss has shown this summer while leading England, it's important that a skipper scores his fair share of runs because then he doesn't have to worry about his place in the side and can focus fully on leading the team.

But that slight blemish shouldn't detract from the devastating, destructive cricket that Durham have played.

Before this week's clash against Nottinghamshire at the Riverside, they'd won seven out of 13 games - four more than their nearest rivals.

On that basis you'd have thought they would have won this title a long time ago, but the bonus points system, which is designed to stop people preparing result pitches, hasn't done them any favours.

Teams that score a lot of runs and draw games can stay in touch with the leaders, which is a little unfair on Durham, but thankfully it has not stopped a fantastic outfit from reaping the reward they are most certainly due.

Comments (1)

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Andrew Watson says...

Agree totally Wardie, and it could not happen to a nicer county. I have spoken twice to Mark Davies, and what a terrific guy he is. I was also told by an older Durham fan, that all the other Durham players are just as approachable as Mark. By the way I am a Hampshire fan. Andy Watson

Posted 12:43 14th September 2009

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