University match welcome distraction

First published in Sport

WHEN Michael Di Venuto retired hurt on the same day that Dale Benkenstein detached a tendon in his leg, there was a moment where we were left to consider whether Geoff Cook may have considered coming out of retirement, such was the magnitude of the Durham injury crisis.

While it's fair to say that Durham's County Championship victories have been aided by good luck on the injury front, it seems that somewhere along the line a Faustian pact must have been made with the great physiotherapist of the underworld who has returned to take back the soul or more precisely the limbs of those who've enjoyed success.

But for all this, Durham have managed to remain unbeaten and while managing to dig themselves out of a hole at HeadinglEy, the televised victory against Leicestershire was perhaps most pleasing to see the novice bowling attack step up so admirably and look like seasoned pros. Gidman, Rushworth, Evans and Ben Harmison all bowled with uncomplicated accuracy, subscribing to the simple philosophy that if you hit the top of off-stump, then the batsman is going to have to do something pretty special to keep sending that ball to the boundary.

While none of them have the obvious menace of Steve Harmison or Graham Onions, one-day cricket isn't always about blasting teams out at 90 mph.

In the absence of these senior pros, the innings of Will Smith showed a sense of maturity and responsibility which will be required in swathes if it comes to the worst, and Benkenstein is missing for any prolonged period of time, given so much of Durham's middle order solidity has been built on his unflappable ability to produce big innings in adversity.

It may be that come the final shake-up at the end of the season, this week will look to be a vital one, not only due to sharing a point with Kent, who'll presumably be major rivals in the group, after a typical bank holiday washout, but the way in which the team battled in difficult bowling conditions against Yorkshire.

Chris Rushworth's persistence on his debut rightly drew praise from Geoff Cook, and the spirited batting from Scott Borthwick at either end of both innings reinforced the idea that he may well be, as some have commented, just as good a batsman as he is a bowler.

A lower-middle order containing Stokes, Plunkett and Borthwick could just provide sufficient resistance in the absence of Benkenstein, even allowing for their inconsistencies with both parts of their games.

This week's university game provides a distraction and perhaps most crucially time off for the walking wounded of the squad and should the more established names of the bowling attack get themselves fit, it will be interesting to see if the likes of Steve Harmison get back into the one-day side, given he was among the senior players rested at the end of last season.

With the injury situation so precarious, there will certainly be a temptation to nurse him through until the Twenty20 campaign begins, certainly if the youngsters continue to perform, in light of the run of difficult away fixtures before returning to the Riverside in the last week of May.

Quite what team starts at Edgbaston and then at Trent Bridge is anyone's guess right now, but it's not inconceivable that Smith, Mustard, Blackwell and Plunkett are the only constants in the two line-ups.

The idea of 'survival' is an over-used term in sport, but physically, it seems just about right at this moment.


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