Cook still missing vital ingredients

County focus; Stephen Brenkley finds out why Durham have become used to life at the bottom
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The Independent Online
THERE are occasions when it appears that Durham's main mission in life is to collect more wooden spoons than Delia Smith. The spectacular margins by which they have lost 11 Championship matches this summer suggest that they could hardly have tried harder to secure their third in four seasons.

They have thrice capitulated by an innings, four times by more than 100 runs and lost to Somerset yesterday by 286 runs. Only a bizarrely underachieving Sussex side stand between them and 18th position; the match between the two at Hartlepool this week could resolve bottom place.

Durham's director of cricket, Geoff Cook, not unnaturally, views the final month of the season somewhat differently from most of his counterparts. "We're going for more than avoiding last place, we're going for respectability a little above that," he said. "There's still a bit to play for as well as our pride."

These are obviously the right noises, but they cannot conceal the harsh facts of another disappointing summer for the youngest county. The four- day form has been matched by equally paltry results in all the one-day competitions. They are also 13th in the Sunday League at present - the lowest position they have occupied all season.

Much of this consistent mediocrity has been on view at the Riverside, Durham's custom-built stadium in Chester-le-Street. It is a handsome ground in a beautiful setting and is being widely touted as a future Test venue. But the suggestion that the pitch is being used a season too soon is made just as frequently. The bounce is understandably uneven and an awesome 386-run defeat against Middlesex last week came largely because so many deliveries were unplayable. These are not the best conditions in which to restore confidence.

The mood was distinctly sunnier in the cold days of April. Then, briefly, the team looked more solid than at any time in its short history and there was a genuine feeling that they would at last compete effectively. If there was not much talk of silverware there was less of wood.

The reason for this stemmed partly from the acquisition of the Indian Test all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar as the overseas professional. He had, after all, been signed by Warwickshire for the previous season before injury forced him to withdraw and then to settle for Brian Lara. But the main cause for optimism was the recruitment of Mike Roseberry from Middlesex as captain and opening batsman. Born and educated in Durham, he was a lad coming back to lead his native county to the promised land.

Prabhakar's effort cannot be faulted. He has played in every Championship game, batted at No4 and sent down nearly 500 overs of his fast-medium bowling. It is possible to quibble with his return of a little more than 800 runs and 40 wickets but perhaps not much, for he was a known quantity and breathtaking deeds were not in his cv.

It is impossible to see Roseberry's season as anything other than depressing. His top Championship score is 56. It is to his immense credit (and a sign of hope) that he has remained affable and phlegmatic. Nor has his lack of form been lately compensated for by the side's big batting star, John Morris. He began splendidly but the past month has been dire for him: 13 innings, 259 runs. And then there have been the injuries.

Durham have used more players (23) than any other county. They could only be thankful that Simon Brown, their left-arm fast bowler, had remained fit, but yesterday he too joined the casualty list. He still remains favourite to be the first Durham player to play for England in a Test - apart from Ian Botham.

A measure of Cook's plight was seen last Wednesday when he had to rush through the registration of James Lawrence, an 18-year-old who heard he was to make his first-class debut the day he got his A-level results.

The county have a highly respectable second team, they are nurturing many promising young players and they have a future. Indeed they and the Riverside might just achieve maturity together but in neither case will it be overnight.

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