Kent 225 & 204 Durham 500-8 dec <i>(Durham won by an innings and 71 runs)</i>: Harmy in heaven, Durham reach for stars

At 11.44am yesterday, amid a rapid cluster of wickets for Stephen Harmison, Durham won the County Championship title. It was an extraordinary achievement for the club, after a mere 17 seasons in the competition, and for the fast bowler for whom the triumph represented full redemption.

Yet they had to wait to be officially invested. It was not until 3.57pm that Nottinghamshire's attempt to score 442 at Trent Bridge finally foundered, and by then the new champions were on the motorway heading north.

Durham had to come from behind to take the title in the last match, but there could be no doubt that their six wins made them eminently worthy victors. In defeating Kent by an inningsand 71 runs, they also consigned their opponents to relegation.

It says much about the close nature of Division One that had Kent won their final two matches instead of folding, they might well have been champions themselves. They lose their status as the only club to have been in the top division throughout.

The outcome on the last, sublime day of a season finishing later than any other in England leaves Somerset and Northamptonshire as the only counties not to have won the title. For Durham it is a complete endorsement of their elevation to first-class status in the early Nineties and a wonderful reward for the head coach, Geoff Cook, who has been at the club since then.

Consigned to the back room for some years, Cook took over the first team again in 2007, when he helped them to win the Friends Provident Trophy. And now the most prestigious prize for a professional cricketer plying his trade in England. Twenty20 may have the lucre but money cannot buy history, as Harmison pointed out. The 2005 Ashes, he said, would take some beating, but winning this title was just behind.

Harmison has re-established his career this season and in so doing rediscovered himself. His 60 Championship wickets at 22.66 (109 in all cricket) have been instrumental in Durham's challenge, and it was fitting that he finished the match off in a blaze of speed. The Australian Callum Thorp had taken the first seven wickets, adding two yesterday to the five he had taken on Friday, by being straight. But Harmison then dismissed the last three men, all without scoring, two of them bowled: three wickets for no runs in four balls. He is a sensitive man, aware of his and others' feelings, and was obviously moved.

"When I came back to play one-day cricket for England I said I would only do it if I could continue to play for Durham," he said. "This means so much, and there are young lads sitting on the dressing-room balcony who probably don't realise what Durham have gone through. There have certainly been more bad years than good."

In 17 Championship seasons, they have finished in one of the bottom three places nine times. Despite the luminous presence of Ian Botham and Dean Jones in their early days they were awful. They were inspired briefly by the arrival of another Australian, David Boon, before slipping back again.

But they unearthed some talented cricketers from the North-east and embarked on a policy of signing proven overseas performers. The captain for the past two years, Dale Benkenstein, is probably the acme of that. He is all that a foreign cricketer should be, not only talented but also shrewd and immersed in the area.

Last year they won the Lord's final and finished second in the Championship. Durham could be criticised for having too many imports. Effectively, they had a South African, two Australians, two West Indians and a New Zealander in the team here. Equally, they had four players reared at home as well as two more, Liam Plunkett and Graeme Onions, on the sidelines.

"It is not so much the nationalities as the blend of youth and experience," said Benkenstein. "You can't win anything without experience." He intends to step down (leave 'em wanting more seems to be the dictum) and more or less recommended Will Smith, their most successful batsman this year, as his successor. It is a hard, nay impossible, act to follow. Nobody can ever lead Durham to their first title again.

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