Posh Kid now top of class as Durham eye hat-trick

Smith opens up on pink balls, floodlights and how local accents keep champions ahead of the game
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If evidence were needed of cricket's willingness to cast tradition aside then this week will supply more, starting tomorrow, when the curtain-raiser to the English domestic season, in which the county champions take on the MCC, is airlifted from Lord's to the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, to be played partly under floodlights and with a pink ball.

The experimental match, part of a process that may lead to day-night Test cricket, is one in which Durham, who won the First Division title for a second year running in 2009, are willing participants, particularly after the corresponding fixture at a soggy headquarters last April yielded only 136 overs of cricket in four days. "I'd play at Lord's at any time but if you don't try these things you don't know what works and what doesn't," their captain, Will Smith, said.

As the Champion-ship's youngest county, Durham ought to be among the most progressive. Yet in a way their success has been built on an old-fashioned idea – that a county team should have a strong regional identity, with a large number of locally-born players.

It is a philosophy that seemed to have had its day when Yorkshire, its last bastion, dropped

their insistence on home-grown players in 1992. It may not be coincidence, however, that the last county to win a third straight title – the feat Durham believe they can emulate in 2010 – were Yorkshire, in 1968.

Smith, who led Durham's successful first defence in his debut season as captain, believes the dominance of local accents in the dressing room is significant. "Having such a strong local flavour is immensely important," he said. "Because these lads have grown up together, and the team has evolved as a progression rather than being patched together from different places, it creates a strong identity."

Even when Paul Collingwood, Steve Harmison and Graham Onions have been required simultaneously by England, the Durham team have still had a sizeable North-eastern contingent.

"It seems we have struck on something every county team aspires to," Smith said. "Of course, we have players from beyond the region, but the way people are recruited here is as much about attitude and personality, so that the sense of pride in the club is not disrupted."

It might seem odd then that, like his predecessor, Dale Benkenstein, the team leader is one of the "outsiders". Smith, a quietly-spoken, youthful 27-year-old, is from Luton and went to Bedford School at the same time as Alastair Cook. When he arrived from Nottinghamshire in 2006, his new team-mates called him "Posh Kid".

But he was not new to the area, having spent three years at Durham University, and is an enthusiastic convert to North-eastern culture. "I love it," he said. "The whole North-eastern philosophy towards life I think is brilliant. They are passionate about sport but they are also passionate about people, and being friendly and living a decent life. I think the club embodies that in a sporting sense."

The architect of that embodiment, Smith says, is Geoff Cook, the current senior coach, who has been with the county since they acquired first-class status in 1992, when he was captain.

"Geoff is an amazing man," Smith said. "It has been his driving ambition ever since he started here to know every young cricketer in the county down to the age of 11, to know exactly how they bowl and how they bat, even to know their parents. He will do everything he can to give every youngster the chance to succeed.

"When he took over as coach three years ago he set the older players free to look after themselves while he concentrated on the younger ones. Now we have a great blend of experienced guys who are willing to help and young guys who are willing to learn."

That Smith should be identified as the man to lead them on the field took some by surprise, not least the batsman himself. "The first I knew about it was when I read it in a newspaper," he said. "Dale was interviewed about how long he wanted to continue as captain and must have let the idea slip.

"I've had to learn a lot but I knew they would not have given me the job if they didn't think I could do it, so I wasn't daunted. It helped me as a young captain to be able to call on so many experienced guys. I don't want to lean on people but they knew I would find myself in situations I had not encountered before and it is only natural to seek their advice."

Among those willingly giving it were Harmison, whose form may be key to Durham keeping their crown, especially if Onions, when fit, continues to figure prominently in England's plans. Smith dismisses any notion that, with his international career seemingly over, Harmison might lack motivation.

"He feels the carrot of playing for England is still there, that there will be a point when they need him again," Smith said. "But he never seems to lack ambition for Durham. I'd never have any bad words to speak about him. He is a true North-eastern lad in all the best senses. He knows he would not have had the life he has had without the faith Durham have had in him, and he wants to do well for them."

Loyalty of that kind might seem to be another concept from a former age. Yet in Durham, it seems, some traditional values still hold good.

Why is season starting now?

March is not over, the semi-finals of the FA Cup are two weeks away and six weekends remain in the Premier League football season – yet tomorrow sees the start of the English cricket season, the earliest on record. Durham and MCC have had the sense to take their pink balls to the desert for the traditional opening fixture but the game will be played on home soil, too, assuming the Rose Bowl is frost-free, when Hampshire meet Surrey in a two-day friendly. The first-class programme starts on Saturday, with six county-versus-university games. The first round of County Championship matches begin the following Friday, 9 April.

Jon Culley