Paul Collingwood's band of local boys triumph over adversity and bad luck
Year that hit rock bottom with coach Geoff Cook's heart attack ends in stirring Durham title win
Durham secured their third County Championship title in six years today. If it was a remarkable achievement for a club which entered the first-class arena a mere 21 years ago it touched the miraculous given the travails which beset them this season.
They began the campaign broke and needed an emergency injection of local authority funds to survive. They were docked points for an inadvertent breach of the pay ceiling two years earlier.
Then they had only two days of grass nets before the season began because of the poor weather and inspired by their veteran captain, Paul Collingwood, ended up climbing a snow-laden Scottish mountain by way of team bonding. There were no funds for an overseas star and they needed to rely on a plethora of largely inexperienced players who were the products of their own academy.
They were forced to win one match, away against Nottinghamshire, in a race against the clock after the fire alarm in their hotel went off and left the players with only an hour's sleep. Off the field, much of the club's attention was on ensuring the success of the Ashes Test that was being staged, somewhat contentiously at their ground last month.
And then came the most cataclysmic blow. In late June midway through the competition, the county's head coach, Geoff Cook, who has been with them since the start of it all suffered a severe heart attack while jogging near the ground.
He was extremely fortunate to be found by a fellow runner but for days it was feared he may not pull through. Cook remained on the critical list for a fortnight. The county was enveloped by gloom which was matched by a renewed determination.
Cook, 61, is universally respected and admired. Nay, he is loved. The summer was already promising something unexpected but this terrible occurrence might have stiffened the resolve.
Perhaps it truly was a miracle because Cook was there today as Mark Stoneman, one of the local boys made good, drilled a cover-driven four off the back foot to clinch an eight-wicket victory against Nottinghamshire and the title.
Cook's return, albeit to light duties, astounded the players and the club management. But he is the sort of chap who is absorbed by the club and the job. He might have played for Northamptonshire for two decades (and more briefly for England) as a capable opening batsman but the blood is pure vintage Durham.
Everyone but Cook wanted to talk about him today. Collingwood, always a man to recognise the contribution of others, said: "There were about 10 of us went into the hospital and saw him. We all came out and the surgeons told us that it was looking ominous.
"Because that was the kind of language they were using it was devastating for everybody that went in. So for him to pull through was a miracle in itself."
Cook, trying to deflect attention from the personal and direct it to the club, said: "As soon as I was home for a week, honestly I just felt absolutely fine. The medical people were definite there was no damage to my heart, so I once I got the OK I could touch base again."
If Cook's dreadful plight affected and galvanised the youngsters in the team whom he had helped (10 of today's side came through the junior and academy ranks), the elevation of Collingwood to the captaincy looked like a masterstroke. When he was appointed last season, Durham were bottom of the First Division and looking bankrupt in many senses.
They went on to win five out of six matches under his stewardship in 2012 and have won 10 already this season, including the last five in succession, with one fixture against Sussex remaining. It can be difficult for a player who has paraded on the international stage as triumphantly as Collingwood to return to the county wings but the leadership of his home club has meant a great deal to him. He took them up Beinn Dubh near Loch Lomond in March when match practice at Loughborough was cancelled.
In Graham Onions he has had the one truly international-class performer they probably needed and he has taken 66 Championship wickets. Two batsmen, Stoneman, from Newcastle and the leg spinner Scott Borthwick, promoted to No 3 from eight on a hunch, are on the verge of 1000 Championship runs.
"It's been unbelievably satisfying," said Collingwood. "We keep getting tested every single game. Something happens that just keeps testing us and somehow we keep showing the resolve. I don't know what it is.
"I don't know if we can bottle it. It seems to be inside the North-east people. They just want to fight. They keep fighting. And these youngsters have just fought all year, through adversity, whether it be financial situations or Geoff Cook's illness. People have grown. Seeing the youngsters blossom has been absolutely wonderful."
And so it was today when, following a delayed start, Stoneman ensured they scored the paltry 69 runs required.
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