Is the 2011 Durham side up for the battle?

First published in Sport by

BACK in the halcyon days of 2005, Durham managed to escape the second division of the County Championship under the captaincy of Mike Hussey and his deputy Paul Collingwood, leading both men and the club on a meteoric rise culminating in caps and trophies galore.

Hussey made his Test debut later than winter, while Collingwood played in the final Test of the epic 2005 Ashes and in the process earned himself an MBE and, as a result, a stream of neverending abuse from Shane Warne.

The financial world of cricket also seemed to be on the up, with 20/20 swelling the coffers of clubs in a time in which the country itself seemed to be more prosperous and wearing its hat jauntily on the side of its head.

Six years on, the relative fortunes of Hussey, who finds himself at risk in a post-Ponting Australian landscape, and in particular Collingwood seem apt symbols of not only the state of the county, but perhaps the nation as a whole.

In these austere times financial times, Collingwood, arguably the best player the county has ever produced, finds himself hobbling towards the end of his career, with his Test playing days over and an end to his one-day career looking to be forced upon him sooner rather than later.

The team too finds itself at something of a crossroads, with last season looking far more uncertain after the run of three trophies in three years, which had gone hand in hand with big spending on exciting overseas players who had followed in Hussey’s illustrious footsteps.

Collingwood’s post-operation return to Durham to play out the remaining years of his career should prove to be a much needed mid-season boost to the campaign, for while he may be past his best he is still capable of easily being amongst the top performers at domestic level, especially in the context of an inconsistent middle order.

While his presence and experience will almost certainly be beneficial to the likes of Ben Stokes, a player who could well be county and nation’s next best flame haired all-round hope, he may also act as an uneasy figure looming over the captaincy of Phil Mustard.

It was wise to give Mustard more time after he perhaps unexpectedly had greatness thrust upon him after the fall-out from the abrupt end to Will Smith’s captaincy, but the spectre of a World Cup-winning captain around the dressing room and the chance to reunite the four and one-day captaincies may just be too tempting if another unsatisfactory start is made.

Much of that start will inevitably depend on the fitness and desire of the pace attack that blasted its way in various combinations to two successive titles.

There’s no doubting that a fit-again Graham Onions will have his sights set on players such as Bresnan, Tremlett and Finn who have all overtaken him in the England reckoning and he could provide that early spark.

Whether Steve Harmison still has the desire and ability to stay fit through a full season remains to be seen, as will the answer to perennial questions about Mark Davies and latterly Callum Thorp’s fitness.

Even with Collingwood’s return, there’ll be the resumption of the inconclusive battle between the likes of Gordon Muchall, Kyle Coetzer and Will Smith for a spot in the middle order and Mark Stoneman will look to finally make an opening slot his own.

Uncertainty, rather than expectation greets the start of the summer, but perhaps some of the scrapping spirit of 2005 can rise once more.

JAMES TIERNAN

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