Another seven days, another four games. Yes, the Vitality Blast truly is relentless. One can only imagine what moaning guff Steve Bruce would pour out in complaint at the fixture list.

This week saw Durham’s talismanic leader pull on club colours in this competition for the first time since a quarter final defeat to Sussex back in 2018. Such has Ben Stokes meteoric rise, he is rarely sighted at Chester-le-Street, four T20 outings since last Sunday doubling his tally in the Blast since the 2016 semi-final loss to Northants.

But having fractured a finger in the IPL, surgery to repair the damage saw Stokes sit out of England’s start to the summer. A Cumbrian, who debuted for Durham way back in 2009 having previously skippered the Academy, he was returning home to the Riverside. Whenever about, he is just one of the lads.

Now one of – if not the – world’s premier all-rounders, Durham will have been gutted by the cancellation of freedom day. He is the Hatem Ben Arfa of the cricket, first putting bums on seats and then causing punters to leap up in delight. He would doubtless have brought in a few extra casual fans mid-week, and with an epidemic shortage of cash in the county game right now, every penny counts.

Nevertheless, Stokes played his part in a pair of victories over the Birmingham Bears, those wins bookending defeats to Northamptonshire Steelbacks and Worcestershire Rapids.

Before that Durham were forced to dip into the free agent market. Several members of playing and coaching staff were forced into self-isolation last week – a nonsense when you consider apparently none of the Scotland squad were close contacts of Billy Gilmour – and they went north of the border in search of temporary replacements.  Perhaps they knew something about Highland immunity that the rest of us don’t?

All Evans was one brought in, while a familiar face in Kyle Coetzer returned. No stranger to the Riverside, Coetzer racked up 2,681 T20 runs for the club between 2004 and 2011, and still lives in Chester-Le-Street. Things can’t be all bad when you can call on the ICC Associate Cricketer of the Decade for cover.  Neither featured though, in large due to Durham’s consistency of selection: nine of the squad have played all eight games to date.

Let’s start with the good. First came a home win, Stokes smoking 29 from 18 before Carlos Braithwaite proved his downfall. Those two have met before, right?! Stokes was upstaged by Cameron Bancroft who crashed his way to 76 from just 53 balls. There is little bulk to Bancroft but his six-less knock shows that the game is not all about flexing the biceps. Both Tim Bresnan and Braithwaite were ramped over the wicketkeeper, while five of Bancroft’s seven boundaries came behind square on the leg-side. Brydon Carse continued his impressive season with 3 for 30.

Yesterday’s return fixture followed a similar pattern. Stokes smashed 35 from 20 – launching his West Indian nemesis for a pair of sixes – before Bancroft anchored Durham to 164 with 60 of his own. With ball in hand, Stokes was too hot to handle, finishing with 4 for 27 from three overs. It was only the second time he has snared a quartet of poles in this format.

Betwixt the wins were a few sobering moments. First came a nine-wicket thrashing at home to the Northants. Despite six of the seven batters making double figures, Durham were restricted to 157 for 5, Sean Dickson top scoring with an unbeaten 51. It was his first half-century in club colours since joining permanently from Kent. In reply, Ricardo Vasconcelos bludgeoned 78 not out off just 57 balls, while Adam Rossington made 59 to see the visitors home. A disappointing night all round, not least for the several thousand students bussed in from nearby universities. If ever there was an evening to put on a show, this was it.  Hopefully their imagination was still captured.

Friday night’s showing down at Worcester was a little better but ultimately the result was the same. Dave Beddingham top-scored with 44, with Stokes, Bancroft and Dixon all making it into the 20s. That meant Durham posted 178 for 8, which the hosts knocked off with three balls to spare. Jake Libby has not stopped scoring runs since switching to New Road ahead of the 2020 summer, and was at it again with an unbeaten 78.

All that leaves Durham occupying third spot in the North Group, with five games remaining. The top four earn a quarter-final berth, with first and second securing home ties. Two more matches this week, both on home soil, before a brief interlude for a bit of red-ball stuff. Remember that?!

On England duty was Ashington quick Mark Wood. A shoe-in for the World Cup in Dubai later in the year, Wood picked up three wickets in back-to-back wins over Sri Lanka in Cardiff during the week, before being rested for the dead-rubber finale yesterday. Given Chris Woakes was given time off following his mammoth three overs in twelve months, Wood arguably deserved more of a break.  What Eoin Morgan wants though; Eoin Morgan gets.

On Sean Longstaff watch, Tynemouth CC’s clash with South Northumberland fell afoul of the weather, although he did pick up 2 for 51 before making an unbeaten 21 batting at nine to help his side draw with Benwell Hill CC last week.  Coetzer lined up against him, but survived Longstaff’s probing.

SAM DALLING