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SATURDAY SPOTLIGHT: Trophy time as Durham spoilt for choice
WITH Paul Collingwood available from the outset, Durham have an embarrassment of riches ahead of the opening LV County Championship match at home to Nottinghamshire next week.
Assuming everyone is fit, Durham might field a top eight reading: Di Venuto, Smith, Collingwood, Stokes, Benkenstein, Blackwell, Mustard and Borthwick. But they are anxious to give Mark Stoneman more opportunities to kick on, while also keeping Gordon Muchall involved.
No other county can compete with that, nor do they have the dilemma of selecting three seamers from Onions, Harmison, Plunkett, Thorp, Claydon, Brathwaite and Rushworth. Mark Wood, the most recent addition to the full-time staff, would also have featured in that list were it not for a back problem.
It is the strongest squad in the country, but time is running out for the old guard and after two frustratingly barren years they will be determined to put some more silverware in the cabinet before some of them depart.
Dale Benkenstein has extended his contract, but it could be the final season for Michael Di Venuto and Callum Thorp, while Steve Harmison needs to stay fit and back up his claims that he still has a big appetite for county success.
It will also be a pivotal season for Liam Plunkett. After the hard work put into his rehabilitation over the winter the early weeks will indicate whether he can still fulfil the huge potential which first carried him into the England team seven years ago.
His various flirtations with the national set-up often seem to have set him back. But he is a long way from the selectors' minds now and after turning 27 yesterday he can hopefully reward Durham for their perseverance.
Graham Onions quite justifiably still entertains hopes of earning more Test caps, but it would take two or three injuries to open the door for him, so Durham can expect him to provide a potent spearhead.
Onions, Harmison and Plunkett all firing together would strike fear into any county line-up, especially with the hugely exciting Ben Stokes able to maintain the pace barrage as a fourth seamer.
The all-round presence of Stokes and Collingwood will again enable Durham to enjoy the luxury of fielding two spinners in Ian Blackwell and Scott Borthwick.
The leg-spinner was not a prolific wicket-taker last season, but his all-round ability made him an invaluable member of the side and it was when he was on England duty that the title challenge faded.
Durham, like Somerset, discovered the pain of trying to win everything and ending up with nothing. In early August they still had a chance of the treble, but a Twenty20 quarter-final defeat was followed by a CB 40 semi-final exit and a third place finish in the championship.
They led the main event by 23 points after completing the double over eventual champions Lancashire in the tenth game. But three defeats and a draw in the next four yielded a total of 19 points and those were the games Borthwick missed.
Whether he has advanced his England prospects over the winter remains to be seen, but Durham should see plenty of him.
The signing of Herschelle Gibbs and Mitchell Johnson for the Twenty20 Cup can be taken as a major statement of intent that Durham will launch a serious assault on a competition in which they have reached finals day once in nine years.
They should also be strong contenders again in the CB 40 event, in which they recovered from a poor start last year to win their last five group games before performing poorly in the semi-final at Taunton.
As they had also fallen flat in the T20 quarter-final at the Rose Bowl it prompted one-day skipper Benkenstein to say: "We have to learn to perform on the big occasions," although having to travel long distances following four-day matches did not help.
So as Durham again set out to win everything, what can be learnt from last season?
Coach Geoff Cook said: "We worked hard in all the competitions to give ourselves a chance, but it showed how difficult the trophies are to win. If you have four bad days in the championship or one bad day in limited overs it can be all over.
"Players have to make sure the standards they are capable of are always aspired to and they never let their guard down."
Benkenstein will again hold the one-day reins, with Phil Mustard continuing as four-day captain. There was speculation that Collingwood might take over, but until Rajasthan Royals advised him he wasn't required for their Indian Premier League team he was expected to miss the first seven weeks of the season.
He signed a three-year contract with Durham last summer and if his IPL days are over it should help to guarantee his full commitment to his native county. If he can also cajole Harmison into rekindling the spirit of that first title-winning season in 2008 it will be greatly to the team's advantage.
Harmison is not fully match fit after the ankle injury he suffered in the indoor nets. He sustained a similar injury last July when he stood on a football in a pre-match kickabout, ruling him out of the last two months of last season. It was his second freak injury of the campaign as he was struck on the arm at the non-striker's end by a fierce drive from Mustard in the opening match. He will feel he is due some luck.
Stokes was unable to bowl at the end of last season because the surgery to repair his badly-dislocated finger was not fully successful. He went to the USA for another operation and recovered well ahead of schedule, so there is every reason to hope he can start the season as explosively as last year.
The fact that Durham were prepared to let Mark Davies go to Kent is partly a reflection of their intention to bring on Barbados-born Ruel Brathwaite.
"Ruel is desperately keen to become a regular member of the side," said Cook. "He did well when he played last season and in retrospect he probably should have played a bit more, although the team was doing well."
While future restructuring of the county game remains up in the air, there will be six fewer days of cricket this season purely because of the T20 reverting to ten group games, played in one batch from June 15 to July 8.
Gibbs and Johnson are expected to be available throughout that period, which will be a bonus following the comings and goings in recent seasons of David Miller and Ross Taylor.
Cook said of Gibbs: "It's the first time we have gone for someone at the top of the order in Twenty20. That's where a batsman has the biggest opportunity to influence a match. Herschelle has played around the world in various T20 competitions and it will be important for him to keep his profile going."
Durham again face a hectic start. After opening up at home to Nottinghamshire, starting on Thursday, they have three successive away games at Lord's, the Oval and Edgbaston, with a three-day then a two-day gap. It is far from ideal scheduling, but if Durham can get the better of the promoted London teams they will be up and running.
Durham squad: P Mustard (capt), D M Benkenstein (one-day capt), I D Blackwell, S G Borthwick, R M R Brathwaite, G R Breese, M E Claydon, P D Collingwood, M J Di Venuto, S J Harmison, L E Plunkett, G Onions, G J Muchall, M J Richardson, C Rushworth, W R Smith, B A Stokes, M D Stoneman, C Thorp, M A Wood.