With the County Championship title staying at Riverside for another year as Durham proved untouchable all summer. TIM WELLOCK, The Northern Echo’s dedicated cricket writer, looks at the bigger picture, asking if other counties can catch Durham and what role the ECB can play.

WHEN Durham won the LV County Championship last season it was considered something of a fairytale – a bit like Accrington Stanley winning the Premier League. Yet suddenly they are in a class of their own.

The £500,000 Durham will win for retaining their title is a five-fold increase on last season and was designed to counter the possibility of counties concentrating on earning megabucks from a place in Twenty20’s Champions League in India.

The evidence so far is that it isn’t working.

Durham’s success is wonderful for the North-East, of course, but it should be remembered that the last county to dominate to this extent were Surrey. Ten years ago they finished 57 points clear at the top, and look where they are now.

As a relatively new club going from strength to strength, down-to-earth Durham are unlikely to make the same mistakes as the Surrey Showboats. But for Durham to have suddenly stretched so far ahead of the field must trigger some alarm bells around the rest of the country.

There is no doubt that while Durham have strengthened, largely through the acquisition of Ian Blackwell, the rest have gone backwards.

The only time Durham have been under pressure in fourday cricket this season was when Worcestershire’s Kabir Ali, during the brief period in mid-season when he was fit, had them rocking on 59 for six at Riverside. They recovered to win by five wickets.

Sajid Mahmood reduced them to ten for four in the second innings at home to Lancashire, but they already led by 128 on first innings and won by 138.

Durham have trailed in the first innings only once – by 135 runs at Headingley. But they comfortably turned the tables by following up with 421 for nine declared.

After having the better of three draws at the start of the season, they won four in succession to go 18 points clear. They then won three of the next five, while nearest rivals Nottinghamshire and Somerset have not won at all since chalking up three victories in the first seven.

Sadly, this coincides with a decline in coverage of the county championship by national newspapers, which is equally bad news for the competition.

This decline is not a result of Durham’s domination as it was evident from the start of the season. It has more to do with the need to cut costs during the recession, but it is also fuelled by a negative perception of four-day cricket.

This mirrors the attitude which appears to prevail in many counties. It started with Leicestershire, who were champions in 1996 and 98, then as their decline set in allowed it to be accelerated by concentrating on the Twenty20 Cup. They won that in two of its first three years and now find themselves unable to compete for anything.

Middlesex won the Twenty20 last year but now languish near the bottom of division two in the championship, while Sussex have become the one-day kings at the expense of fighting against relegation two years after winning their second successive championship.

Although Graham Onions moved successfully into the England team this season, the championship is not currently the breeding ground it ought to be for Test cricketers.

The number of highlypromising youngsters like Leicestershire’s James Taylor remains as high as ever, but candidates for immediate promotion to the England team are scarce.

It was once considered counter-productive for youngsters to be exposed to one-day cricket; now the likes of Taylor have to learn Twenty20 trick shots before they are out of their teens.

There is also a perception that one-day teams need to be young and athletic. But does it help them to become Test cricketers?

Durham’s coach, Geoff Cook, agrees that the overall standard has declined since he returned to first-team duties when Martyn Moxon went back to Yorkshire before the 2007 season.

“The major difference since then is the availability of top players,” said Cook. “We finished second to Sussex that year and we were involved in outstanding, tough cricket the whole season.

“Every county had two overseas players who were with them for most of the season and high-quality Kolpak players were helping to raise standards.

“England players also occasionally appeared for their counties with less intrusion from Twenty20 cricket and no Indian Premier League. The climate of world cricket and the ECB’s decision to squeeze out Kolpak players means the whole county scene is now less settled.

“Some counties haven’t got the best out of their Kolpak players. We brought in people like Dale Benkenstein, Gareth Breese, Michael Di Venuto and Callum Thorp. Three of them are staying here this winter and they have all made a huge emotional commitment to the club.”

Under the ECB’s performance-related payments scheme counties will be financially rewarded next season for having two players under 22 in their fourday team, with a slightly lower payment for fielding up to four more players under 26.

Onions, yesterday handed a central contract by the ECB for the next 12 months, was 27 last week, Phil Mustard is 27 next month and Gordon Muchall the month after, while Kyle Coetzer will be 26 next April. Durham will not allow the financial incentives to persuade them to rush academy boys into the first team, so the only ones from whom they might benefit are Liam Plunkett, Ben Harmison, Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick. Luke Evans is in the right age bracket, but remains well down the pecking order of seam bowlers.

Cook said: “The ECB are trying to encourage counties to give opportunities to players who have gone through the English development system. Time will tell whether it’s going to be a success.”

With Surrey leading the poaching of good young players from other counties with promises of high salaries, there has been talk of imposing a salary cap of £1.8m next season, but Cook feels that’s too high to make much difference.

He does, however, believe that some form of compensation, or transfer fees, should become available when a county spends years nurturing a player only to lose him to a wealthier club.

“As division one status becomes more important there will be a lot more unrest,” he said. “Players are even moving in mid-season now. They used to take pride in playing for their county, but the movement now is detracting from the traditions of the county game.

“It’s sad in some ways for counties who have not been able to attract better players.

They become labelled as division two outfits, and possibly their thinking and planning remains at that level.

“The ECB raised the stakes in the championship to maintain the integrity of the competition and raise its status. Four-day cricket has always been seen as the main yardstick, and we want everyone aspiring to the top.”

Durham have so successfully aspired to the top that they will stay there for the forseeable future unless others match their aspirations.