Did Durham overreact with Smith?

First published in Sport by

FOR some, it seemed to mark the inevitable slide of cricket from virtuous heights down to the murky money-driven depths where less gentlemanly football louts inhabit.

For others it was a sign that perhaps the unexpected timing of Will Smith's departure was perhaps the opposite; a gentlemanly agreement not to rake over what went on behind closed doors and to embrace clichés about working hard to take the club in the right direction.

There's no doubting that Smith had been dealt a bum deal with injuries this season, but the hammering away at Nottinghamshire had certainly been on the cards in recent weeks, with that immeasurable zip that had been behind the team over the last few years seemingly missing.

However, despite the immense standards set last year, losing one game is hardly a resigning issue, even if there'd been an unexpected trough in form.

Even among the celebrations of last year, there'd been rumours of dressing room unrest, something which was very easy for Durham fans to dismiss among unparalleled success and it's with this rift between Smith and some of the more senior players in the squad that speculation had now focused.

It also cannot be ignored that since becoming captain, Smith's form with the bat wouldn't have justified a place in the team had he simply been a member of the rank and file.

While hardly the first player to see their form drop when mentally encumbered with responsibility, the erratic form of players around him served to highlight that Smith, certainly in the County Championship, had become something of a passenger batting at three.

Quite where Smith's period of captaincy will be judged in Durham history seems to be a vexed issue, as even with the success of the Championship, there was always the feeling that he was still in Dale Benkenstein's shadow, if for nothing other than the fact he didn't have to drag the club to their first title, but for not being as well-loved as a player.

One good season with the bat, does not a hero make it would seem.

This is not to denigrate Smith's achievement, as for all the criticism that such an experienced team would more or less captain itself through moments of adversity, teams of talented players do not simply achieve results from nowhere, as any recent captain of Surrey will surely testify.

The appointment of Phil Mustard as his successor was initially surprising, and then seemingly logical as there appeared to be no obvious alternative, with Di Venuto not playing in all forms, Steve Harmison far too sensitive a soul for such an undertaking and Ian Blackwell not exactly an inspiration to the modern all-action cricketer.

The image of The Colonel, seemingly selected as a popular senior figure in the dressing room, is that of a loveable puppy, all enthusiasm and instinct, rather than the air of an educated cricket intellectual that proceeded him; more Phil Tufnell than Mike Brearly.

Mustard must surely be aware that for someone whose batting has never quite fulfilled its potential in the County Championship, having the added responsibility is something of gamble, but what he will bring is undoubted enthusiasm for the game and the club.

The opening month of the season and the change of skipper has taken the club from clear favourites to retain the title, to staring at a season of transition in the Championship.

While the title is not beyond Durham, for once the break for Twenty20 seems a matter of urgency, in order to regroup.

Strange times indeed.


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