Cricket: Durham battle to the last: Michael Austin reports on the experience gained from a first season in the top flight

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ANYONE even remotely thinking that Durham's scorecard should have been edged with black for the final game of their first Championship season at Gateshead Fell could not have been wider of the mark.

Despite the physical weariness from chasing a thousand boundaries and the mental fatigue of regular defeats, there was a buoyancy, a steely confidence that next summer must and will be better.

This rugged attitude stems from Geoff Cook, the director of coaching, and David Graveney, the captain. Durham chose wisely by appointing them. When it comes to stand up and be counted time, they are first in the queue.

Both expressed disappointment, bordering on surprise, that Durham, the county game's first newcomers for 71 years, finished bottom of the Championship, believing mid-table would have been more realistic. They know some players have under-achieved and that the younger brigade need to overcome the psychological pressures of the first-class game.

Cook said: 'The downside is that some players did themselves little justice from July onwards. But there are positive features including the rapid promotion of promising players to top level.

'Some we introduced, such as Paul Henderson, Stewart Hutton, Mark Briers, John Wood, Gary Wigham, Darren Blenkiron and Jimmy Daley are far ahead of schedule in terms of their own careers. We have no choice but to bring them in because of all our injuries.

'All they need now is the toughening experience to play at this level daily. They all began impressively but some did not know how to handle doing well and their performances fell away. It is something picked up almost unknowingly by players.

'Take Hutton for example. At 22, a talented left-handed batsman, he has broken records in the North Yorkshire and South Durham League. On his performances for us this season, a couple of 70s and three 40s, he should have played more but he became drained by having to bat in exposed circumstances. He did survive but was pulled out of the team when we felt he had had enough of it. Stewart could take it in the league once a week but not almost every day.'

Durham's other difficulties involved a time-consuming wait for the team ethic to gel. The mix of contrasting age groups, from Graveney, at 39, to Henderson, 22 years his junior, meant that young players were not instantly sure of the strengths and support of the senior players, who in turn were uncertain about the ability and attitude of the younger element.

The anatomy of Durham's season was two wins in the first six Championship games, but none in the last 16. A high of third in mid-May, then mid-June, dwindled into bottom place for the final five weeks of the summer.

Wayne Larkins passed 1,500 first-class runs for the ninth time while Dean Jones and Paul Parker reached 1,000. But Simon Brown, the fast left-arm bowler, was the only one around the 60-wicket mark. Durham were stronger in batting, which prompts the theory that a West Indian fast bowler will be next season's overseas recruit.

Ninth place in the Sunday League confirms that Durham, and their more eminent players, such as Ian Botham, could raise their game once a week while a NatWest Trophy quarter-final and a near miss in the Benson and Hedges Cup enhanced their credibility.

'Ian had a difficult year,' Cook said. 'He scored Durham's first Championship hundred. It was all very predictable. He got in the England team, was injured and has battled to pick up any momentum since. Ian would admit that he needs incentives when struggling with injury and has not enjoyed his cricket of late.'

Graveney said: 'We held our own in three competitions but had problems in the longer contests. When Dean (Jones) left us at the end of July to join Australia on tour, we badly missed his runs. Youngsters were coming in at 20 for 2 instead of 150 for 2. The last month has been especially hard because of the runs piled up against us. Staying in the game has been tough but we have battled for draws. One of the most challenging targets is batting out time when it's impossible to win.'

When the snow lies deep on the fells, Durham will recall with pleasure their opening Championship win, with a day to spare over Glamorgan, and a NatWest victory over Middlesex at Uxbridge with only 10 fit players throughout. Their second team also finished in the top five of their championship.

The time looms not only for reflection but planning and possibly an increased playing staff, now reduced to 20 by the unavailability of Jones next summer and the departure of Gary Brown. Cook mused: 'We will probably lose two or three players at the end of next season through reasons of age or alternative employment. The best preparation is some numerical strength at the end of this year.'

Paul Smith, the Newcastle-born Warwickshire all-rounder, may be available but the game's etiquette means that Durham are not at liberty to discuss even the possibility as Smith is still under contract.

Graveney stressed: 'If you believed all the speculation, we would have a staff of 40. The commercial side of the club is brilliant. We closed the membership at more than 6,000 this summer but we do not have pots of money, especially with a lot of expenditure on our new ground at Chester-le-Street, which will be ready in three years.'

Next season begins next month for Durham. Cook said: 'We want to target each individual and try to maximise his skills more than we have already. I have learned more about cricketers than I did in 20 years playing for Northamptonshire. It has been fascinating to see a player's attitude in the morning - optimism, pessimism, or confidence, almost to the point where I could predict how that individual would perform on the day.'

Graveney summed it up: 'I look around the dressing-room and see faces young and old. They all want to be winners. We have to be hungry to do just that next year.'

Durham's Debut Season

COUNTY CHAMPIONSHIP

Apr 25 v Leicestershire (Durham U) lost by 7 wkts

May 7 v Kent (Canterbury) drawn

May 14 v Glamorgan (Cardiff) won by inngs & 104r.

May 23 v Northants (Stockton) lost by 8 wkts

May 29 v Hampshire (Southampton) drawn

Jun 2 v Somerset (Darlington) won by 8 wkts

Jun 5 v Derbyshire (Chesterfield) drawn

Jun 12 v Essex (Hartlepool) lost by 190 runs

Jun 19 v Sussex (Horsham) lost by 4 wkts

Jun 27 v Kent (Gateshead Fell) drawn

Jul 3 v Gloucestershire (Stockton) drawn

Jul 17 v Nottinghamshire (Trent Bridge) drawn

Jul 21 v Leicestershire (Leicester) lost by 10 wkts

Jul 24 v Middlesex (Lord's) lost by 175

Jul 31 v Surrey (Durham U) lost by 7 wkts

Aug 4 v Yorkshire (Durham U) lost by 5 wkts

Aug 7 v Warwickshire (Edgbaston) drawn

Aug 14 v Glamorgan (Hartlepool) drawn

Aug 21 v Worcestershire (Worcester) drawn

Aug 26 v Hampshire (Darlington) drawn

Sep 7 v Somerset (Taunton) lost by eight wickets

Sep 12 v Lancashire (Gateshead Fell) lost by 10 wkts

BENSON AND HEDGES CUP

Apr 21 v Glamorgan (Durham U) lost by 4 wkts

Apr 30 v Worcestershire (Worcester) won by 3 wkts

May 2 v Combined Univs (Fenner's) won by 51 runs

May 5 v Derbyshire (Jesmond) lost by 80 runs

NATWEST TROPHY

Jun 24 v Ireland (Dublin) won by 189 runs

Jul 9 v Middlesex (Uxbridge) won by 6 wkts

Jul 29 v Leicestershire (Leicester) lost by 45 runs

SUNDAY LEAGUE

Final position: 9th

Record: P17, W7, L7, NR3, Pts34

(Photograph omitted)

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