DURHAM leave today for an 11-day trip to Dubai, hoping to gain some insight into what their early season batting line-up should be.
The 15-man squad does not include Keaton Jennings, Mark Wood and Paul Coughlin, who are already in Dubai preparing for the North v South series of three 50-over matches, starting tomorrow.
Jennings has gone from captaining England Lions in five one-day internationals in Sri Lanka, where he scored a series of 20s and 30s, to captain a North team coached by former Durham star Ottis Gibson.
Also missing from the Durham party is Barry McCarthy, who is in India with the Ireland one-day squad playing against Afghanistan. He took four for 33 in the second Twenty20 match but had none for 69 in the third game and was left out of yesterday's first 50-over contest.
The absence of Wood, Coughlin and McCarthy, plus Usman Arshad with an ankle injury, leaves Durham's seam attack a little light, but coach Jon Lewis will be focusing more on the batting.
“There is a lot of uncertainty about the line-up for the start of the season and we need to see some performances rather than base decisions purely on practice,” he said.
“One of the reasons for going is to take part in the Emirates T20 tournament, which is attracting teams from around the world and is becoming quite a big event. Our presence helps to keep Emirates happy as our major sponsors as they probably weren't impressed by our relegation.”
Lewis felt Durham's punishment by the ECB initially acted as a powerful motivation for the players, but now says: “Six months is a long time to hold a grudge. It's a fresh start with a few new faces and the players are keen to get going.”
The fact that Durham are going on their first pre-season tour for several years is an indication that the ECB bail-out has allowed the purse strings to be loosened, although the squad still looks lean following the loss or release of seven players.
Other than Stephen Cook and Tom Latham, who will share the overseas player's duties, the only new signing is top-order batsman Cameron Steel, the former Durham University captain who spent three years in Middlesex's second team.
He will be on the trip, along with England Under 19 seamer Josh Coughlin and young spinner George Harding, who is expected to offer a challenge to Ryan Pringle and Adam Hickey.
“It's unusual for us to be able to say this, but we are seeing some progress in developing spinners,” said Lewis. “George has had a good winter, Cameron Steel bowls a bit of leg spin and young Liam Trevaskis is showing promise.”
Lewis hopes to have Wood available at the start of the season, saying: “He's had a tough winter after his third ankle operation. I expect him to play in two of the North v South matches then he will come back to us for the rest of pre-season.”
On their return Durham will play a two-day match against Middlesex at Merchant Taylor's School on April 3-4, prior to starting the season against Durham University on April 7.
Cook is expected to arrive during that match, hopefully with some runs under his belt after a double failure in South Africa's first Test against New Zealand. The second Test starts in Wellington today.
*Durham are hoping for a bumper crowd on the first day of the championship season on Good Friday (April 14), when Nottinghamshire are the visitors.
They are encouraging members to use their free day pass for a friend on that date in the hope of maintaining their first increase in membership for eight years.
At the end of February memberships were up nearly five per cent compared to the same point in 2016, taking the total above 4,000. Newcomers have been joined by lapsed members returning following lengthy spells away, and people across the country showing their support.