I have an apology to make.
I’ll hold my hands up – my pre-season predictions were hopeless. I had Middlesex or Warwickshire to win the championship with Surrey in the top 3 and Yorkshire, Durham and Derbyshire to be struggling at the bottom.
My reasoning was that Durham were a team in transition, having lost some of their experienced players (Blackwell, Plunkett, Di Venuto) and with a change of captaincy at the back end of last season, I assumed that the pressure to perform would be too much for some of the youngsters who would be required to play regularly given the financial pressures at the Emirates ICG. I was spectacularly wrong.
As I write this, Durham are 30.5 points clear at the top of the table having bowled out Nottinghamshire for just 78 this morning and are edging towards a healthy first innings lead thanks to a hundred partnership between Paul Collingwood and Phil Mustard.
With the weather buggering up the other matches, it looks like Durham could well be County Champions by the end of the week.
Durham’s season has been remarkable. Starting the season on minus 2.5 points due to a salary cap infringement and a team in transition, with a catalogue of injuries, then shaken to the core by Geoff Cook’s heart attack, it would have been perfectly understandable if this season was not successful and was needed as a rebuilding year.
I, perhaps, shouldn’t have been so quick to judge. The change of captaincy at the back end of the 2012 season saw them win 4 championship matches on the bounce to end the season comfortably safe. The Collingwood factor is huge – a hugely experienced cricketer and captain – he has galvanised this Durham team and had led them with a blend of tactical nous, fearless risk taking and vision for the future. He’s used and leaned on the experienced players in the team for support and developed the youngsters.
The shock of Geoff Cook’s heartattack could have derailed their season – it did quite the opposite. Such is the close family feel of Durham CCC that all the players and staff felt it all the more important to pull together and perform – for Geoff. In times of difficulty, a close squad like Durham’s will pull together and get strength and support from each other. This has shone through, you can see it emenate from every pore of the Durham team - they are all playing for each other and all enjoying each other’s success.
At the beginning of the season, I was the Oval to watch young Ryan Buckley take a 5 fer on debut and then wondered round to the players area after play – they couldn’t have been more pleased for their young colleague. I should have known then that this was a team who have that thing you can’t really coach – team spirit.
The story of their success this season is remarkable and heartwarming. Under tough financial circumstances, they have been forced to play a homegrown side with no overseas player. They have had their share of injury nightmares and, like many other counties, had players called up on International duty at the most inopportune of moments. They have taken all this in their stride.
They have, on the other hand, benefitted from Graham Onions bad luck – despite being in England’s squad for most of the summer Onions has not played for England and has, in most cases, been released back to his county after not making the final XI. He remains, a spectacularly valuable bowler – particularly in the right conditions (which they often are at the Riverside) - at time of writing he has taken 63 wickets at a, quite frankly, ridiculous average of just 17.73 and surely a contender for County player of the year at this year’s PCA awards.
Ben Stokes, is a prime example of a player stepping up to the plate. He’s been talked about for a little while now as a player with enormous and exciting potential but had a difficult winter being sent home from the Lions tour – it could have gone one of two ways for Stokes but to his complete credit, he’s knuckled down for both county and then country (picking up 5 wickets for England in the final ODI of the series).
Collingwood’s captaincy has been vital, not just because he is from the aggressive school of captaincy, but for his off-field skills. I think we should remember that this is the man who led England to their only ever world trophy.
It was Durham’s incredible victory over Nottinghamshire way back at the beginning of May that made me begin to realise my pre-season prediction was, perhaps, going to turn out to make me look like a pillock (as it has). After a sleepless night interrupted by fire alarms going off in their hotel, they were struggling to take the final 5 Nottinghamshire wickets they needed to on the final day but once they had they were faced with a chase of 183 in 23 overs for victory. Plenty of teams would have batted it out, content to take the 3 points for the draw. Not Collingwood and not this Durham team – they chased them down with 16 balls to spare – not ever deciding that they weren’t going to go for them.
That fearless attitude combined with players like Chris Rushworth (currently with 51 wickets at 20.68) and Scott Borthwick who has emerged in a new role batting at number 3 (at time of writing has scored 985 runs at 42.82 and taken 37 wickets) have put them in the situation they are today - with one hand on the trophy and moving towards their 3rd title in 6 years.
So to all at Durham – I doff my cap to you and sorry for doubting you.