DURHAM'S attempt to defy the odds and qualify for the Royal London Cup semi-finals has been hit by Stephen Cook's absence for two tough away games.

The centrally-contracted Test opener has been recalled to South Africa for fitness testing but is expected to be back for Durham's final group game at home to Lancashire next Tuesday.

Cook's place for today's televised 2pm start at Trent Bridge goes to Gareth Harte, a 24-year-old South African who has yet to play first-class cricket.

A former school colleague of Keaton Jennings in Johannesburg, he had already played for three county second X1s and the MCC Young Cricketers when offered a trial by Durham.

He scored 183 in a Second X1 Championship match against Northants last week, sharing a stand of 326 with Michael Jones, who had made a century for Scotland A against Durham seconds the previous week.

Despite starting their 50-over campaign with a two-point deficit, Durham have climbed to fourth place in the group but now visit two of the teams above them.

They will move on from Trent Bridge to Worcester on Sunday and will be looking for a contribution from someone other than their four leading run-makers.

Jennings leads the PCA’s Most Valuable Player rankings with 403 runs from five innings, including two centuries and two half-centuries, Michael Richardson has 351 runs at an average of 117 and Cook's aggregate is 266.

Paul Collingwood has chipped in with unbeaten half-centuries in the last two games, but Graham Clark and Cameron Steel have struggled to make an impact.

James Weighell, with 13 wickets, and Richardson were seventh and eighth in the PCA rankings prior to the current round of games, putting them in contention for places in next year's North v South series.

“Playing in the series would be a great platform for them,” said Jennings, who captained the North this year and has relished the chance to captain Durham in 50-over cricket.

“Richo has scored very quickly, and while his stats for big-hitting might not be the best, his dot ball count is one of the lowest.

“James Weighell was released from our academy when he was having a few injury problems. He’s fought his way back and he’s shown great skills and maturity in the way I’ve asked him to bowl at some tough times, and he’s generally come out on top. He can bat a bit too.”

Unlike in previous seasons, there are no quarter-finals. The groups winners will earn a home semi-final on June 16 and 17 and on June 13, there will be two play-offs to decide their opponents. Second in the North group will be at home to third in the South, and vice versa.

Jennings said: “I was lucky enough to play when we won the Royal London at Lord’s in 2014, and if we could get there again this year it would be amazing. In some ways the two-point deduction freed us up, as we’ve felt like underdogs with nothing to lose.”