Division 1 of the County Championship is notoriously unpredictable. Just two seasons ago Durham were tipped for relegation by many pundits and yet ended up winning a third Championship title.
The 2013 success was an all-round effort but the key component might just have been a formidable seam attack. In 2014 that attack was severely depleted, mainly because of injury, with Graham Onions, Mark Wood, Jamie Harrison and Ben Stokes all sidelined to varying degrees. As a result Durham flirted with the possibility of relegation for the first half of the season only to hit form in the latter part of the summer, resulting in a comfortable mid-table finish in the Championship and victory in a tense, low scoring Royal London One Day cup final at Lord’s.
Durham go into 2015 in optimistic mood. Two key players – Wood and Stokes – are absent on international duty but almost everyone else is available. Crucially, Onions (right) returns after missing most of the previous season with a back injury.
After years without a homegrown batsman passing the 1,000-run season landmark, Scott Borthwick and Mark Stoneman did so in 2013 and repeated their achievements in 2014 and were joined in the 1,000 club by Michael Richardson, with Paul Collingwood just short of the landmark.
However, with the exception of a second innings century from Richardson, there were no batting heroics at Taunton last year as the home team recorded an emphatic 7-wicket win lit up by a second innings hundred from Marcus Trescothick.
A three-day match against Durham MCCU (also Somerset’s opening first-class opponents this year) provided decent pre-season practice at Chester-le-Street earlier this week. Durham’s first innings total of 448/5 dec was based around centuries from Keaton Jennings (177 no) and Borthwick (104), with MacLeod and Collingwood both passing 50.
Onions then took 4-15 in the students’ first innings as they were dismissed for 159.
Useful contributions (in a rejigged batting order) from Stoneman, Mustard, Richardson, Macleod and John Hastings saw Durham to a second innings score of 260/7 declared before Borthwick (4-61) and Rushworth ( 3-32) helped bowl out Durham MCCU for 170 giving Durham a 379-run victory.
Durham’s chances at Taunton and for the season as a whole probably require Stoneman and Borthwick to prosper with the bat. Jennings endured a tough end to the 2014 season and will be looking to follow up his century against the students with another big score. Collingwood seemed rejuvenated last year persuading him to reverse his decision to retire and there’s no guarantee this will be his final season; aside from his obvious qualities as a player he is probably the best captain on the circuit so he too is a crucial performer.
John Hastings proved to be an inspired choice as overseas player last year and having him for a full season is a major boost.
The player though, that I’d single out as one to watch, is the young bowling all-rounder Paul Coughlin (below) who made an instant impression last season and then showed no sign of nerves as he opened the bowling in the Lord’s final in what was actually his first appearance at the ground.
The key factor though, when Durham play well, is that it often is a real team effort with all 11 players capable of making significant contributions. Some of our best results have been delivered from seemingly hopeless match situations. Our recent results at Taunton haven’t been good though and a good start is likely to be required if that is to change.
Likely starting X1: Stoneman, Jennings, Borthwick, Richardson, MacLeod, Collingwood, Mustard, Hastings, Coughlin, Rushworth, Onions.
Many thanks to Mark for his preview of Sunday’s game from a Durham perspective. You can follow Mark on Twitter at @mbutler1974