Cricketer's Diary: Spirit is still willing

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DURHAM have just completed 31 days cricket in 35, and are languishing at the foot of the county table. It's time to take stock. The know-alls predicted in April that we'd be wooden spoonists, but this temporary state has come about only through a combination of injury and bad luck without which we would have won at least four Championship games.

The trouble is when you have a brittle batting order and injured bowlers, you get the rough edge of the green and spirits sag. Young batsmen entering the fray at 20 for 2 to face a marauding Allan Donald are inevitably exposed.

If they took guard to Dermot Reeve on 150 for 2 they would prosper. Without Dean Jones and the dependable Paul Parker, the pressure is on Wayne Larkins to curb his natural aggression and good bowlers can smell apprehension.

If Larkins makes runs, everyone is on the balcony grinning as he tames bowlers. The delight is in the simplicity of his technique - a minimum of footwork, a maximum of power - and his devoted attitude. He will bat in any circumstances, never complains of fatigue or injury and is that rare breed of class batsman who doesn't treat the 12th man as a personal slave. If is he out early, the mood visibly deflates. Like David Gower, the very best is often fleeting.

But, regardless of the fact that Durham have had only one victory in a month and the knives of some reporters are sharpening, the team spirit is still excellent and there is no split in the camp as has been suggested locally.

Larkins has found a new lease of life, Botham is an enigma - he even performed the 12th man duties yesterday - Bainbridge is conquering injury and upheaval, Parker exudes vim and vigour. New names like Hutton, Glendenen, Brown and Briers have made their mark and mature with every outing. Geoff Cook and David Graveney navigate a happy ship with a good blend of leniency and discipline which typifies family men. Errant players need the occasional lecture today, but there are no grudges tomorrow.

The playing record illustrates the progress. Twelve victories in all matches, reaching the last eight of the NatWest Trophy, enterprising cricket throughout, and a sated membership of 6,500 in the country's top five. Home Sunday League fixtures are sold out. All from nothing in April. The launch of the Fulham Rugby League Club a few years ago achieved nothing in comparison.

Special mention should be made of the groundsman, Tom Flintoff, formerly at Hampshire. With threadbare machinery and voluntary staff, he has cultivated a series of excellent pitches from club strips offering incentive to everyone.

He must ensure, however, that the boundaries on the new ground at Chester-le-Street are sizeable. Spinners have suffered neck ache watching the ball constantly sailing into nearby back gardens. By 1995, when construction and recruitment are complete, the team and facilities will be formidable.

NEW trends in cricket:

1) Fielders wearing lip ice and sun block even in dark, overcast conditions.

2) Wicketkeepers squatting facing extra cover rather than the bowler, a practice advocated by Alan Knott.

3) Bowlers delivering practice bouncers to mid-off before new spell. The ball frequently ends up at the boundary.

4) Batsmen buying Millichamp and Hall bats, replacing M and H stickers with their sponsors' own.

RUMOURS are circulating that a county player has failed a drug test recently. Immediately, the national averages are scoured for names of cricketers experiencing unprecedented success. There are so many unpronounceable names on the banned substances list, however, that it may just have been a case of someone taking Lemsip or Coldrex, unaware of their presence in the dreaded pink pages.

Simon Hughes, of Durham, composed his column while wrangling with a local newspaperman over a controversial story at Hartlepool.