On July 2, 2012, Durham were drifting towards relegation. Stuart Rayner examines how the decision to appoint Paul Collingwood shaped their year
AS surprises go, Durham’s decision to sack Phil Mustard as captain was hardly seismic but it was a significant moment in the county’s 20-year first-class history nevertheless.
Fourteen points adrift at the bottom of the County Championship and without a win after seven games, things were coming to a head.
However, with the four-day competition in mothballs for the previous month, it looked as if Mustard might have earned more time.
When his successor Paul Collingwood (pictured below), gave his first interview as four-day captain the reason for the prevarication became obvious.
The former England limited-overs skipper was still not fully recovered from the broken hand suffered during Mustard’s final game.
Collingwood was at Worcestershire for his “first” match as captain but did not play in it. It only added to the feeling of a club in disarray.
Mustard had paid the price less for his own failings, more for those of his senior players.
Durham had started the season with high hopes of another Championship but reality had now dawned.
Near-constant rain shaped the season firmly in the bowlers’ favour, but Durham adapted worse than most.
Only two batsmen had scored centuries, while Mustard’s close friend Graham Onions’ outstanding bowling and even his game batting gave the impression at times of a one-man team. It does Durham’s players little credit Collingwood’s appointment so transformed everything. Exactly how he turned things so decisively is still hard to gauge.
The players noticed few differences in approach. Perhaps he simply delivered the same correct messages in a different or more authoritative voice.
Perhaps the bad luck of the first half of the season was being repaid.
Perhaps it was coincidence players found form once Collingwood was at the helm.
A more disciplined, defensive mindset was adopted and to good effect.
The Worcestershire game was a washout, only 166 overs possible between the bottom two.
At Sussex, with Collingwood back but Onions injured, the batting failures continued and although Callum Thorp and Chris Rushworth reduced the hosts to 73-8 with only 94 needed, they scraped home.
Five of the last six games were won, including four in a row to equal the club record.
Judging just by the league table, relegation was comfortably avoided.
More than anything, Collingwood injected dynamism into an ageing team which had started to drift.
The process started before his appointment, with first Stephen Harmison and Liam Plunkett, then Ian Blackwell sidelined.
Within days of Collingwood’s appointment, Harmison was loaned to Yorkshire, who Plunkett joined permanently in September.
Blackwell too was farmed out, even after spoiling a token friendly to prove his worth by taking career-best bowling figures. Loaned to Warwickshire, he became a regular in their title-winning side.
Under different circumstances, Durham might have tried to move on the pair before the last 12 months of lucrative contracts, but Harmison has a benefit year and Blackwell recently underwent shoulder surgery expected to rule him out for six to eight months. Still, Collingwood had shown he was prepared to take big decisions.
Another was made for him, Michael Di Venuto announcing his retirement as the team bus headed to Worcester.
His runs were a big loss, but it allowed Collingwood to carry out the second half of the transformation – bringing in fresh faces.
James Harrison enjoyed an impressive first three Championship games before ongoing back problems struck again.
That apart, Mustard largely relied on the players who delivered the 2009 title. Durham pointed to it as a strength but the lack of regeneration was a weakness.
South African-born Keaton Jennings and Michael Richardson were belatedly given chances and hinted they could play longer-term roles at the top of the order.
It was disappointing Mark Wood is still to play a Championship game away from Trent Bridge after a match-winning display there, but part of the reason was Rushworth.
At 26 the Wearsider hardly classes as a youngster, even if he plays on their side in the pre-match football, but 2012 was the season he arrived as a first-class cricketer, claiming career-best bowling figures four times.
Twenty-five-year-old Mark Stoneman also stepped up, though frustratingly only in 40-over cricket.
If he can consistently score big four-day runs, he will be Durham’s next captain.
Collingwood also did his bit. When he replaced Mustard his own form had been as bad as the rest, with only one 50 that season. He added three more and a first century in a year.
With Collingwood still undefeated as captain, there is cause for optimism in 2013 – but only cautious optimism.
It seems there will be no overseas recruit to replace Di Venuto.
How much is seen of Onions will depend on how he fares on England’s tour of New Zealand and the fitness of those in front of him in the international pecking order.
Durham changed their direction on July 2.
Hopefully, it will take them back to where they were a few years earlier.