The fixtures for Durham’s first Division 2 campaign since 2005 made miserable reading for the county’s supporters. Trips to Derbyshire and Leicestershire were the last thing on the mind of Durham’s players following their magnificent, hard fought win against Surrey at the Riverside which secured survival. Following the ECB’s draconian sanctions which have seen the club relegated, Durham now face a steep task to secure promotion as they begin the new season on -48 points.
However, all is not lost in the North East. Durham have the stand out squad in the second Division with opening bowlers Chris Rushworth and Graham Onions being arguably the best in the country. Further experience is brought by captain and club legend Paul Collingwood who extended his contract for another year to help Durham cope with the loss of star batsmen Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick. With these stalwarts alongside some incredibly promising young players – such as Keaton Jennings, Jack Burnham, Paul and Josh Coughlin, Adam Hickey, Brydon Carse and Barry McCarthy – Durham will go into every Championship game this season as favourites and expecting victory.
So, will Durham overcome the 48-point deduction? The key factors will likely be the weather and bonus points. Looking at Division 2 seasons since 2010 the average score required to finish in the top two and get promoted has been 201. With the restructuring of the division, meaning 14 matches will be played rather than 16, this becomes an average of 176 points if it is assumed that the points per game will stay consistent. The result of all this means that Durham must look to achieve a minimum of 225 points from their 14 matches to scrape promotion at the first time of asking. For this to be achieved the club needs to target at least 6 wins from their 14 games with the ideal scenario being around 8 wins which will leave some leeway for the eventually of a shock defeat at some point in the season.
Managing over 6 wins is a real possibility for Durham as the bowling attack – which may be boosted by the presence of England internationals Ben Stokes and Mark Wood – has remained intact from last season. Not many Division 2 batsmen will have faced a seam attack as effective. The incredible records last season for veterans such as Steve Magoffin of Sussex and David Masters of Essex will have the likes of Rushworth and Onions believing they could both reach 60+ wickets in 2017. Therefore, the biggest problem for Durham when it comes to forcing a result will be the weather. Durham lost over 1000 overs and almost 14 days of play to the rain (as well as some snow) last season. The first three championship games of 2016 (against Somerset, Middlesex and Surrey) resulted in Durham drawing from winning positions. This is where luck will be needed for the promotion push. Durham have two championship fixtures in April with a key home clash with Nottinghamshire before a trip to Bristol to face Gloucestershire. If Durham go into the first batch of one day games with two draws this could have a significant impact on morale with 6 wins from 12 games appearing much more daunting.
While the weather is out of everyone’s control the area which Durham will need to improve on next season is bonus points. In the years since Durham last won the championship in 2013 a feature of the club’s performances has been poor first innings totals which has limited the potential for bonus points. If Durham draw any more than five games the target will need to be around 90 bonus points for the season. This is not unrealistic as last year’s Division 2 champions Essex reached 101 and the before that Surrey managed 104. Even with the two less games 90 bonus points should certainly be a possibility for Durham. Coach Jon Lewis has already made clear that the club are looking to recruit a new top order batsmen and with the promise of the likes of Burnham and Hickey the batting depth should be effective enough in the second division to pile on the first innings runs. Both Burnham and Hickey should be targeting over 1000 for the season and if Jennings is not in the England Test squad he should be looking to dominate the run scoring charts on the back of his unmatched total of 1548 in 2016.
Next season is going to be tough for Durham, more mentally than in terms of the standard of cricket. The quality which Durham possess with bat and ball should be good enough to push for the Division 1 title so I would expect the team to be unbeaten in Division 2. If that is the case Durham need to make sure they win more than they draw and this will largely come down to the weather. In the end the difference between second and third will likely be bonus points and it is in this area that Durham must show their superiority to the teams around them. Maximum points in the six games against Sussex, Kent and Worcestershire is not beyond the realms of possibility and there should be hope that Durham will secure promotion in late September at New Road.