Durham make their first foray into the 2018 County Championship by welcoming Kent to the North East.
They begin the season, having not played in the opening round, on a much-firmer footing than they did this time last year. The 48 points deducted from them at the start of the 2017 season rendered all hopes of a promotion challenge effectively hopeless.
This time around they have much more cause for optimism, but will be aware that three Championship victories last season was not good enough – points deduction not withstanding.
Durham’s cause has not been helped over the winter however, with the exodus from Chester-le-Street continuing at a fair old lick. Paul Coughlin headed North to Notts, with Graham Onions and Keaton Jennings both finding new homes at Old Trafford.
The evergreen Paul Collingwood remains, now 41, the all-rounder top scored for Durham in the Championship last season. While his importance cannot be understated, he needs others around him to lighten the load.
Kent come into this one off the back of a chastening opening round defeat at home to Gloucestershire. After a first-day washout, the visitors made the most of the no-toss rule and Kent never recovered from being skittled for a first-innings 64.
A five-wicket defeat then was not the start that a side who, while by no means favourites for promotion, are seen by many as strong contenders to challenge for top two.
They can take encouragement though from the performance with the ball from New Zealand international Matt Henry. The seamer finished with match figures of 7-70 and will again spearhead the Kent attack in the North East.
Though mentioning the North East remains something of a sore point for Kent supporters, who are still coming to terms with the loss of star batsman Sam Northeast to Hampshire.
There is every reason to expect an even contest in this match, both sides boast strong bowling units capable of exploting the mid-April conditions which contributed to so many wickets falling during the opening round.
Exactly 1000 runs in 18 Test innings, a superb average of 55.55, four centuries and three half-centuries. Just a few of the reasons why it’s impossible to look past South Africa opener Aiden Markram as Durham’s key man. That ill-fated series against Australia made headlines for all the wrong reasons but Markram’s form was sensational.
He notched 143 in the first Test, before racking up a Test-best 152 in the final match in Johannesburg. Durham have probably the world’s most in-form batsman in their ranks for the first four matches of their Championship season. Kent will want to get him early.
If Markram is the man to make runs for Durham, his fellow opener Daniel Bell-Drummond is the most likely to do so for Kent. Often linked with England honours, Bell-Drummond is now Kent’s star man with the departure of Northeast. His 63-ball 61 in that Gloucestershire defeat was a class above anything else on show and the 24-year-old is crucial to his side’s chances of success this season.
Cameron Steel is likely to open the batting alongside Markram, with the experienced Chris Rushworth set to lead the bowling attack.
Durham Squad: Paul Collingwood (c), Graham Clark, Gareth Harte, Aiden Markram, Barry McCarthy, Matthew Potts, Stuart Poynter, Michael Richardson, Nathan Rimmington, Chris Rushworth, Will Smith, Cameron Steel, James Weighell
Ivan Thomas and Alex Blake are the two members of the Kent squad who didn’t feature last week. Zak Crawley is set to continue at five after impressing against Gloucestershire.
Kent Squad: Joe Denly (c), Daniel Bell-Drummond, Alex Blake, Zak Crawley, Sean Dickson, Will Gidman, Matt Henry, Heino Kuhn, Harry Podmore, Adam Rouse (wk), Darren Stevens, Ivan Thomas
Weather and conditions
It’s set to be a lovely start to the season in Durham, with bright skies and warm temperatures greeting Kent. But the pitch always offers assistance for the seamers and you have to bat well to score big at Chester-le-Street.
Date: 20th – 23rd April 2018
Ground: Emirates Riverside, Chester-le-Street
Odds (SkyBet): Durham 1/1, Kent 4/5