From also-rans to real contenders

First published in Sport by

THE scheduling of domestic Twenty20 is an absolute nightmare to the weekly columnist, as it flies by at the same relatively frenetic pace of the game itself.

In the last week Durham have gone from looking nervous and unsure of how to approach the tournament, to collectively shrugging their shoulders and deciding to just throw the kitchen sink at it and hoping for the best, with wonderful results.

There had been hints in the heavy defeat to Yorkshire that the likes of Ross Taylor had started to overcome his jetlag and remembered that actually, he was a world class player and maybe a lot of county bowlers aren't actually much cop in the grand scheme of things.

The painful nature of the Yorkshire defeat seemed to suggest that this would be another T20 season of mediocrity which would allow us all to be rather sniffy about this hit and giggle malarkey and that the County Championship was all that mattered to anyone who knew anything.

Sports fans being the fickle sorts of course, Monday night at the Riverside left people believing Durham suddenly had an outside chance of qualifying and that Ross Taylor may just be the most exciting thing ever to happen in the history of New Zealand.

The realisation that the standard of your average county cricketer is variable, especially with the increased influx of overseas stars for T20 highlighting the deficiencies of those players at the lower end, was not only evident to Ross Taylor, but to Ian Bell, a man not always renowned for his carefree approach to the game, whose genuine quality almost embarrassed the Durham bowling attack.

This was perhaps not too much of a shock given the mix and match nature of Durham's bowling attack, but it emphasised the need for Durham to win games with the bat, rather than with the ball, something which seems counterintuitive to the previous years of County Championship success. Durham's top four have finally managed to grasp this opportunity and batting first crucially allows an occasionally nervous top order to not over-think the situation and exploit the depth of talent which against Leicestershire had a high standard of batsman as low down as 10 in the form of Ben Harmison.

But even with this in mind, to set new highest Twenty20 scores twice in four days was something special, with the culmination being Ross Taylor's personal vendetta against buildings.

In a game which also saw Matthew Hoggard rather inexplicably hit a six, Taylor's onslaught provided a stupendous contrast to the soporific start to the football World Cup.

While there is room for subtlety and hitting into unusual areas while rotating the strike; Taylor, a surprisingly huge presence at the crease, not physically dissimilar from Kevin Pietersen, Mustard and Blackwell all seemed to have cottoned onto playing to their very simple strength, that they're able to hit the ball a rather long way on account of being bloody big blokes.

If you're going to slash; slash hard would seem to be the order of the day, but if Durham are really to launch a concerted challenge then the bowling attack need to take a leaf out of England's book and learn how to take the pace off the ball.

Generally, whenever Plunkett, Claydon and the Harmisons get up to full steam is when the runs started to flow and an insurance policy is required against the top four onslaught occasionally misfiring.

For once then, cautious optimism on the T20 front which could conceivably be shattered in the three games in the next week.

Still, it seems more tense than the World Cup right now.

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