WITH the threat of frost being scraped from car windows in the morning barely alleviated, we return once more to the cricket season and what we laughingly refer to as summer.

And as regional footballing discontent gives way to respite through a team who last season turned uncertainty, scepticism and brushes with death into a startling triumph, there remains a small degree of uncertainty as to whether it could conceivably be repeated.

Only in the North East could we take the previous season’s champions and view them with moderate scepticism.

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The naysayers, of which many remain in the national press, have pointed to the weaknesses in Durham’s batting and imminent international absences in key areas.

The debacle of Will Smith and Dale Benkenstein’s staggered departures are ones which in hindsight seem avoidable, as the rush to slash the wage bill left a gaping hole, not only in the middle order but in terms of valuable experience for a relatively inexperienced side.

Phil Mustard batting at five against the MCC and Durham University should have been evidence enough that there are simply not the options.

This situation has only been exacerbated by the likely loss of Ben Stokes for the bulk of the summer due to his impressive and, from a Durham perspective, hugely satisfying start to his Test career.

Admittedly, the nature of his self-inflicted hand injury seemed, in the nicest way possible, to be classic Ben, and his loss in the raft of early season Championship games will be keenly felt.

The spectre of England call-ups will be an ever present shadow over Durham’s season, with Scott Borthwick finding himself slotted into the spinner roulette of England’s early summer selections.

His loss in particular, especially if it is compounded with Stokes’ selection could leave Durham painfully short.

The travesty of Graham Onions’ non-selection for the winter’s Ashes debacle, presumably on the grounds of not being tall enough, almost certainly leaves him in a better spot to play the first Test of the summer than had he gone and been damned by association.

With Mark Wood and Jamie Harrison both having struggled with injury in the past, there’s a worry that the pace attack could be left short of options, although there were promising signs from the fit again Paul Coughlin in pre-season.

One of Durham’s main strength’s last season was undoubtedly the inspiring leadership of Paul Collingwood, who despite his century in the university game, is in decline as a batsman, something which no doubt reinforces the decision for this to be his final season.

Yet it shouldn’t all be doom and gloom, as the squad which won the Championship with youthful verve and enthusiasm returns a year older and wiser.

Mark Stoneman, confirmed as limited overs skipper and Collingwood’s heir apparent, finally fulfilled some of his undoubted potential, while Keaton Jennings fought back from a troublesome start to last season to cement a place at the top of the order.

Usman Arshad, who ended the season looking like he had been playing First Class cricket for years and much is expected of him as he is expected to take on some of the absent Stokes’ burden with both bat and ball.

The addition of John Hastings, while not the most glamorous of signings, should do likewise, with his height and skill with the white ball lending useful variation to the Durham attack.

And should the talks with the exceptional Kumar Sangakkara reach a positive conclusion, Durham certainly should want for runs in the first part of the season.

If last season started with a defence against those who prophesied doom and gloom, then this starts with cautious, self-deprecating optimism.

JAMES TIERNAN