Durham Ready for 2016

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Emirates Riverside in Chester-le-Street, home of Durham County Cricket Club. Seamer’s paradise, batsman’s graveyard and the butt of a million-and-one ‘cold-oop-north’ jokes from soft southern journalists.

On no other English ground are you more likely to see both teams bat in a single day. And perhaps go home a different colour than you were when you first arrived, too.

And yet here I am again, in the first week of April, having donned more layers than a budget airline passenger with an exceeded baggage allowance. This is my annual ritual. My season starts here with the match between Durham and Durham MCCU.

The annual pre-season friendly is a chance for both players and supporters to blow away the cobwebs as they slot back into their familiar summer routine. And to whet the appetite for the weeks ahead with some memorable cricket, too – Ben Stokes smashing five sixes (as well as the seat next to me thanks to one of them) on his way a century in 2013, a brisk and brutal Paul Collingwood hundred in 2014 and Keaton Jennings’ unbeaten 177 off 242 balls last year are just a few memories that will be staying with me for a long time to come.

It’s a chance, too, to become reacquainted. Players greet familiar faces with warmth and jokey banter. Youngsters are high-fived, mini-bats are signed and fans-for-life are created. The spirit around this club is as friendly as it is tangible.

On the field Durham have always been a side for pundits to write off at their peril. Tipped for relegation by The Cricketer in 2013, they won the County Championship. In 2014 odds were again defied as the Royal London Cup was lifted. Despite a difficult financial position, restricting the opportunity for the kind of marquee signings possible elsewhere, Durham have consistently punched above their weight thanks to an outstanding and seemingly inexhaustible crop of locally grown talent. Their near-neighbours may hog the limelight – ‘strong Yorkshire, strong England’ and all that – but from Collingwood, Harmison and Onions through to Ben Stokes and Mark Wood, a crucial ingredient of the successful England sides of recent years has been a bit of North Eastern grit and personality.

This season, with both Stokes and Wood likely to be away on England duty and Australian international John Hastings due to undergo the shoulder surgery that will keep him out for the duration, the depth of that player pool will be tested more than ever. Columnists are already sucking their teeth and sharpening their pencils. But with everyone fit and firing Durham are a match for anyone in the First Division.

And they are keen to prove so once again.

With Chris Rushworth, PCA Player of the Year last season after topping the County Championship charts with 83 wickets, and the consummate craftsmanship of Graham Onions, Durham have the outstanding new-ball partnership in domestic cricket. Both are unsurpassed in their ability to exploit English conditions home and away, and together they ensure Durham’s haul of bowling bonus points is always hefty.

There is plenty of younger talent in the ranks too, and Durham will be hopeful that Usman Arshad, Paul Couglin and Jamie Harrison remain injury-free for the whole of this campaign having had promising seasons disrupted last time out.

For Durham today, though, with Jack Clark deciding to bowl after winning the toss for the students, the focus is on batting. It’s a chance for the openers to get some time at the crease before the visit of Somerset at the weekend, and the left-handed combination of Mark Stoneman and Keaton Jennings hit the ground running, Jennings in particular seizing on anything straying off line as he races to fifty before lunch.

Stoneman is the more watchful, cooler, unhurried. He accumulates his runs steadily and inexorably, his running between the wickets more in the style of a warm-down jog than a sprint, and reaches an untroubled fifty with the most classical of cover drives. He is – a headline writer’s dream – the rock upon which Durham’s batting is built, and with 1090 Championship runs at 34.06 last season England could do far worse than give him the chance at the top of the order that so many have been calling for.

The MCCU opening bowlers, Jack Wood and Tim Alexander, toil away with little to show despite the encouraging oohs and ahhs and hopeful appeals from the slip cordon. Will Phillips offers a little more with his smooth, light-footed approach from the Lumley End, and he induces Jennings to nick to slip and walk off with a frustrated swish over the stumps.

Scott Borthwick brings a different style to the crease, bustling and energetic. Another player England will do well to look at again, Borthwick mixes solid technique with a powerful array of attacking strokes. With 1286 Championship runs at 42.86 last time out he is a formidable number three, with or without the legspin he was first known for and which he has been honing over the winter under the guidance of Jeetan Patel. After a commanding start it is a surprise when Borthwick falls, victim of a smart stumping off the slow left-arm of Jonathan Dewes, but his rapid and commanding scoring will be a key component in Durham’s season. With the added experience of Paul Collingwood and Gordon Muchall, the middle order looks strong.

His replacement Michael Richardson made the wicketkeeping position his own last season, succeeding Phil Mustard in the four-day side, and he quickly reaches double figures. Richardson is a tidy player, solid in defence and quick to punish the wayward delivery, and when he is joined by Jack Burnham, fresh from finishing as leading scorer in the ICC U19 World Cup, the two accelerate to push the Durham score past 300. Richardson completes his century in 121 balls, with nine fours and a six, and the innings is declared after Burnham nudges a single to bring up his second first class fifty.

And, after the MCCU openers play out a final few overs, the day draws to an end. Weather-wise we’ve seen it all, from heavy rain to bright sunshine. Even hail made an appearance. “All we need now is snow,” grumbled the bloke behind me.

“Too cold for snow,” said his mate.

But who cares? We’re off again. The season has started.

“Ha, that’s what happens, one mistake and that’s you!” said Scott Borthwick as I commiserated with him over his dismissal. “I felt good out there today though, pretty comfortable. Good to get bat on ball again.

“I had a great time playing in New Zealand over the winter, got a few runs for Wellington, but I’m looking forward to the joys and challenges of county cricket again. All of us feel that same excitement when the season is starting, getting our new kit and everything, getting back into it.

“I’m just itching to get going!”

And after a long, long winter, so are we all.

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