It would be stretching it a bit to say Durham have found a new superhero ahead of tonight’s themed Twenty20 home game against Leicestershire, but the story of Calum MacLeod’s 2014 could easily have been ripped straight from the pages of a comic.
As well as being a feel-good story in its own right, it also reflects extremely well on the leadership skills of Paul Collingwood, one of MacLeod’s team-mates this evening.
The inexorable rise of the 25-year-old right-hander continued last week when he was handed his first professional contract by Durham. Needless to say, no one was surprised.
Ever since he made 175 for Scotland against Canada in Christchurch in January – the second highest one-day international score by a player from the ‘Associate’ (ie lesser) nations – MacLeod’s star has been on the up and up.
In March Scotland qualified for the next 50-over World Cup, where their opponents will include joint hosts Australia and New Zealand, as well as England – a team MacLeod fielded for as a substitute in the 2009 Ashes. His performance in May’s defeat to the Auld Enemy in Aberdeen was unremarkable, bowled for nine by James Anderson, but he did manage to take the catch which removed Alastair Cook.
By then he had joined Durham on a trial-cum-loan, impressing so much for and against them in the second team (who played a series of friendlies against Scotland) he was handed the captaincy before he got his contract. The step up to the first XI has been no less successful. MacLeod’s average of 69.33 is the eight best in the country in this season’s Twenty20 (Gordon Muchall is third in the list), and he has scored more than twice as many runs as any of his new team-mates.
Not bad for a bowling all-rounder whose career seemed to be over five years ago when Warwickshire released him after the ICC found he had an illegal action.
“It was a shock when it happened but as soon as I saw the video I could see what they meant,” he says. “I had coaches around me who were telling me, ‘Look, we have to do something about this.’
“There was no point trying to lie about it or hide away from it, there was quite clearly a problem there and I had to try and do the work to rectify it.
“I always tried to work on it and I still work on it now, just in a completely different way. The more challenging side of it was the mental side, turning up day in, day out to see no real rewards for all the work I was trying to put into my bowling. It wasn’t for lack of trying, it just wasn’t meant to be. I’ve stopped worrying about the technical side, and what parts of my body are doing what things. Those little issues do play on you.
“Now that I’ve lost the focus on that I’m just focussing on what I can do instead of what I can’t it’s bringing me back into the game a little bit more.”
MacLeod is back bowling now, in second-team cricket, though it has become an optional add-on, rather than the essence of his game.
He admits his 2009 release by Warwickshire hit him hard.
“Initially I was really disappointed,” he says. “The first year after that I didn’t do a huge amount to try and get back into county cricket. After that I played for Scotland in the CB40 and tried to get my name out there that way.
“If I’m honest it never quite went as well as I’d hoped. I never met the standards I try to put on myself (In three seasons playing for Scotland in England’s domestic competition, MacLeod’s average was a fraction under 20).
“This winter I went to New Zealand with just the focus of trying to qualify for the World Cup. I’d kind of put thoughts of county cricket and chasing it out of my head. Significantly, it brought him under the wing of Collingwood (pictured below), Durham’s four-day captain who spent last winter on Scotland’s coaching staff, a job he is likely to return to when his playing career finishes at the end of the season.
“Colly was able to transfer the confidence back into my game from the nets and into the middle,” MacLeod explains. “I was able to go out and start being more successful again.
“I’d done a lot of hard work leading up to it but I probably put too much pressure on myself in the CB40s to go out and impress.
“Once I’d taken a step back and focussed on what I was actually trying to achieve with Scotland, I think my performances actually improved and my batting and the way I went about scoring my runs improved.
“I didn’t do a huge amount of technical work with him. I’m not a huge one for the technical side. I try not to over-complicate things. In saying that, I like to watch other people bat. It was more a case of trying to transfer the skills I was showing in the nets into the middle and having the confidence to go out there and do it.
“That’s what Paul was big on in the winter, having that confidence to go out and showcase what we could do. Before one Twenty20 he said, ‘Go out and entertain’ and that’s always stuck with me. He’s right. You’re out there to have fun and showcase what you can do.
“Paul had told me before the tournament started that the opportunity would be there for me (at Durham) this season, so it was quite nice knowing that I had that to come back to when the tournament was over. It meant I was able to go out and play in the way I wanted to.
“I wouldn’t put it all down to him, the guys had to put in good performances and hard work, but he was definitely instrumental in creating the right environment.”
With a three-point gap to the top-four placing that will ensure progression the knockout stages, Durham need to take full advantage of a home game against one of the weakest sides in the northern group.
Ben Stokes’ England snub means the Riversiders will have their superhero all-rounder available, but a 14-man squad leaves captain Mark Stoneman spoilt for choice in the bowling department, even with Graham Onions (back), Mark Wood (ankle) and Jamie Harrison (knee) injured.
Usman Arshad has recovered from a lower-leg injury and Paul Coughlin is added to the squad in recognition of an impressive all-round debut in Durham’s long overdue maiden County Championship win of the season this week, at home to Lancashire.
Tonight’s game starts at 5.30pm, and supporters are being encouraged to wear superhero fancy dress.
DURHAM (from): Stoneman (c), Mustard (wk), MacLeod, Stokes, Collingwood, Borthwick, Muchall, Breese, Pringle, Arshad, Hastings, Rushworth, Coughlin, Jennings