From whipping boys in their early first-class days to county champions two years running, it has been a meteoric rise for Durham.

But after such an assiduous ascent to the top of the English domestic game over the last 18 years, it is not a title they will be about to give up easily.

There have been plenty of teams to retain the County Championship over the last few decades. Essex, Warwickshire, Surrey and Sussex have all done it since the start of the 1990s.

But not since Yorkshire’s triumphs of 1966, 1967 and 1968 has a county notched a hat-trick of triumphs.

That is something the north-easterners, captained by former Notts batsman Will Smith, will be intent of changing in 2010 – and there will be few betting against them.

As runners-up to Durham in the last two campaigns, many will expect, and members at Trent Bridge will hope, that Notts will offer the most significant threat to the champions’ crown.

But if director of cricket Mick Newell’s side are to challenge, they will certainly have to up their game, no doubt about it.
Durham won Division One of the County Championship in 2009 without losing a single game, winning eight and drawing the other eight, leaving them a full 47 points clear of a distantly second Notts.

It was an impressive record built on their all-round strength; batting, bowling and depth of squad.

As runners-up to Durham in the last two campaigns, many will expect, and members at Trent Bridge will hope, that Notts will offer the most significant threat to the champions’ crown.

With bat in hand, Durham rarely faltered and only twice during the course of the season did they fail to top 200 in their first innings and thereby claim at least one batting point. Six times they passed 400 to take a maximum five.

The backbone of their top order were Michael Di Venuto, who was second only to Marcus Trescothick in number of Division One runs scored with 1,601, and ever-prolific former captain Dale Benkenstein who notched 1,155.

They were backed up by solid contributions from the likes of influential all-rounder Ian Blackwell (801), Smith (700), Phil Mustard (592) and Gordon Muchall (497).

And, just when they needed it in the closing weeks of the season, overseas player Shivnarine Chanderpaul exploded onto the scene with 472 runs in just five matches at the incredible average of 236.

By comparison, Notts were also consistent with the bat, just once failing to post in excess of 200. Skipper Chris Read led by example as his 1,203 runs left him ninth in charts of leading run-getters. Overseas players David Hussey and Adam Voges both excelled, scoring 407 runs in three matches and 697 in eight respectively.

Beyond that, Ali Brown (849), Mark Wagh (814) and Samit Patel (712) registered the lion’s share of the runs, while Alex Hales (358) showed his promise in the latter stages of the season.

It was in the bowling department where Durham could claim superiority over not just Notts, but the rest of Division One as well.

Of course, the threat of Steve Harmison at county level has been well documented and it was no surprise he was the third highest wicket taker in the division with 51.

Opening partner Graham Onions was arguably even more lethal as he claimed 45 scalps in seven games (to finish fifth in the wicket-taking rankings) before England took note and called him up for their summer Ashes battle.

But what was not always acknowledged was the job done by the supporting cast. Liam Plunkett (49) ended fourth and Blackwell (43) sixth, not to mention the contributions of Callum Thorp (30), Mitch Claydon (22) and Mark Davies (19).

Notts, on the other hand, had just one bowler in that same top ten, Andre Adams, who was eighth with 43 wickets.
Samit Patel (32) was next best swiftly followed by Ryan Sidebottom (31) and Luke Fletcher (29). But the spearheads of the attack from 2008, Charlie Shreck (21) and Darren Pattinson (10) were hugely disappointing after being hampered by injuries.
It was the obvious difference in firepower that effectively separated the two sides in the final analysis.

After winning three of their opening five County Championship games to lead the way early on, Notts won just once more – and that was not until the final game of the season against Sussex. More often than not, the Green and Golds were in command of the 10 games they drew, but did not have the ammunition to bowl their opponents out twice on flat pitches.
By contrast, after a slow start, Durham had no such problems and quickly showed their propensity for taking 20 wickets.

On the odd occasion their batsmen did not fire on low scoring pitches, their strong team attack invariably ensured whatever score posted was still competitive.

And, when in the ascendency, those same pacemen really went for the jugular and rarely let their opposition off the hook.
Even when Onions and, more occasionally, Harmison were on international duty, Durham had trustworthy, experienced performers to fill the void.

On the other hand, the absence of Stuart Broad, who played just once, Graeme Swann (twice) and Sidebottom (seven times) was much more keenly felt.

The matches between the two sides were always going to be crucial and Durham were comprehensive victors on both occasions, inflicting on Notts their only two defeats of the four-day campaign. When the sides met at Trent Bridge in July, Durham posted 356 then bowled Notts out twice for just 171 and 83 to win by an innings and 102 runs and collect 20 points to the hosts’ two.

In the Riverside return in August, the north-easterners again dominated, winning this time by an innings and 52 runs as they posted 648-5 declared before ousting Notts for 384 and 212 to make the points split 22 to five.

That overall points swing of 35 towards Durham was not far off the margin by which they finished ahead come the last day of the season.

So what of 2010? Can Notts turn the tables on Durham?
Well, another strong season with the bat will certainly help their cause and the arrival of first Hashim Amla and then the ever-popular David Hussey should help the flow of runs.

The top of the order has been Notts biggest problem since the disbandment of the Darren Bicknell-Jason Gallian partnership, but with Neil Edwards having signed from Somerset, Newell will hope he can solve the problem along with, perhaps, Hales.
Samit Patel will also be out to get back to his majestic best that saw him average more than 50 in first-class cricket prior to last season.

With ball in hand, Notts are again unlikely to be able to call on Swann and Broad, while Sidebottom’s availability remains open to question.

And they have the additional problem of losing the ever-reliable bowling of Mark Ealham, who has retired. The successful introduction of newly signed young all-rounders Steven Mullaney and Graeme White, plus a strong showing from Paul Franks, will be paramount in that regard.

But much will depend on a return to form and fitness of Shreck and Pattinson, who can, in their pomp, trouble any team in Division One. Obviously, Notts will also have to fare a great deal better in their clashes against the reigning champions when they meet in mid May at Trent Bridge and late August and early September at the Riverside.
Against a team who seldom lose, it could be down to Notts to inflict the defeats that will be necessary to push Durham all the way.

The early signs, though, are that beating Smith’s men over four days is going to be easier said than done. Durham hammered the MCC in Dubai in the traditional curtain-raiser to the season by 311 runs – and with front line players still to return. The champion club have ever reason to be confident of more glory.

Other counties could come into the reckoning, newly-promoted Kent among them, but Patel believes the title race will again be down to last year’s top two horses. Usurping Durham is not mission impossible for Notts, but if they are to outwit their rivals, everything is going to have to click.
Matthew Halfpenny is the Nottingham Evening Post Cricket Correspondent.