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New Frontiers For Durham

Durham's sudden emergence as a powerhouse of English cricket will tomorrow move to the final frontier of Twenty20.

The newest county club took at least a decade to establish themselves as credible opponents for the best teams in this country.

But they have been a revelation, under captain Dale Benkenstein, over the past two seasons.

As they prepare for their first taste of Twenty Cup finals day this weekend, no-one can argue with their credentials as the outstanding all-round county team.

Winners of last year's FP Trophy and NatWest Pro40 Division Two, as well as runners-up in the LV County Championship, this year they were semi-finalists in the domestic knockout and are challenging hard again in four-day cricket.

Liam Plunkett is one of a nucleus of homegrown international cricketers who have helped to make it all happen for Durham - and he is determined the story is not about to stop here.

"In the last three years I think we have come on really well," said the England pace bowler, whose own progress has been hampered by an early-season injury this summer.

"We have contributed in all forms of the game - one-day, four-day cricket and now the Twenty20."

The Durham recipe is based on collective talent and spirit - and as they prepare to lose their finals day virginity, Plunkett is confident they are made of the right stuff.

"Everyone enjoys everyone's success, which is a massive part of the team. Everyone's enjoying their cricket here," he reports.

Durham's progress to Twenty20's showpiece - they take on Middlesex and then, they hope, the winners of the other semi-final between Essex and defending champions Kent at the Rose Bowl - has taken many by surprise.

Even Plunkett admits they appear to have gone from nought to 90 in the shortest form of the game.

"It will be massive," he predicts, looking forward to tomorrow's acid test.

"The last couple of years we have struggled in Twenty20 cricket ... I think we have been the worst in the country.

"But this year, it's been really good to string some wins together - and there's been some good performances."

Durham not only had to win their matches, of course, but endured a fortnight of unexpected uncertainty along the way - after the postponement of their original quarter-final till Tuesday night, because of the mis-registration of a player by their initial scheduled opponents Yorkshire.

They kept their cool, though, to defeat Glamorgan - having not known whether it would be the Welsh, Yorkshire or even Nottinghamshire who would be coming to the Riverside to take them on this week.

That is all history now, though - and Plunkett is anticipating major travelling support from the north, on the south downs.

"We had a big following at the Friends Provident (at Lord's) last year - a lot of people came down to watch," he remembers.

"We hope we can go down there and win it."

The prize at stake is not just domestic Twenty20 silverware but, for both finalists, a shot at untold riches in this autumn's Champions League in the Middle East.

"We feel we are good enough to beat Middlesex - but we're not just going to get in the top two," Plunkett proclaims.

"We want to win the competition. Our aim is to win it, not to be runners up."

One man who has been crucial for Durham in all forms of the game this summer is Plunkett's one-time England colleague Steve Harmison.

Loss of form has seen the fast bowler fall out of favour in Test cricket this year, but Plunkett insists he has seen some special performances from Harmison of late.

"Steve has been inspirational for the last month or so," he said.

"He has been awesome; he has been bowling fast and accurate - and we're fortunate he's been playing for Durham.

"He's won a lot of games for us this past month. He's been brilliant."

The beauty for Durham is that Harmison is merely one of several potential match-winners - in Twenty20, or any other type of cricket.

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