DURHAM'S academy has been rated the finest in the country by the ECB, underlining the ridiculously harsh nature of the punishment they handed out at the end of last season.

Hampshire, the team who will benefit from Durham's relegation, have recently announced the signing of two South Africans on Kolpak deals, which still allows them to have an overseas player.

They also signed Asher Hart from the Durham academy in September, offering him “a lot more money” according to Durham coach Jon Lewis.

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Lewis said Durham prefer not to go down the Kolpak route and intend to sign South Africa opener Stephen Cook as an overseas player.

“We would rather produce our own players. That's what we are all about,” he added.

Hampshire's debts are greater, but Durham were punished for having the audacity to request a bail-out from the ECB when they couldn't generate enough income to meet repayments on loans of £6m.

An online petition organised by Durham members Peter and Sylvia Savage is about to be presented to the ECB after attracting the signatures of almost 1,500 objectors to the punishment.

The latest round of academy evaluations carried out by the ECB confirms that Durham do more for English cricket than their rivals.

Academy head John Windows and his team were rated as outstanding and achieved 100 per cent for their quality of coaching and learning.

Statistics show academy graduates accounted for 75 per cent of the first XI squads across the 2016 season, higher than any other county.

A total of 16 academy products played in last season’s Specsavers County Championship, and 13 also made one-day appearances.

Durham finished fourth in the Championship and reached the NatWest T20 Blast final, while the Second XI won their championship title.

The academy squad won the North East Premier League T20 competition and finished fifth in the Premier Division.

Keaton Jennings became the latest Durham man to play for England, making a century debut in India last month, while Josh Coughlin followed fellow academy men Jack Burnham and Adam Hickey in playing for England’s Under-19 side.

Windows said: “We are delighted to have been recognised in these latest results, which confirms the great work we believe we’re doing with young cricketers.

“The county has a rich history of promoting youth talent and our aim is to provide Jon Lewis with players who are ready to contribute to the First XI. We are already looking forward to the next generation of talent making their mark on the national and international stage.”