TWENTY-TWELVE was a life-changing year for Chris Rushworth.
Twelve months ago he was towards the back of a long queue of Durham bowlers.
Four of his fellow seamers had played Test cricket for England and the management only intended to play three seam bowlers at a time in County Championship cricket.
So when Durham played their first away game of the season at Lord’s, Rushworth was in Billericay representing the second team against a combined Essex/Kent seconds.
By the end of the season, Rushworth was officially the third-best bowler in the Championship’s First Division, swimming while bigger-name colleagues like Stephen Harmison and Liam Plunkett sank in the rain.
Five times he set a new career-best with ball or bat, becoming one of the go-to men in Durham’s dramatic mid-season revival.
In October a first child, Henry James, arrived and in March he received a late call-up to the MCC side which faced champions Warwickshire in the traditional season’s curtain-raiser in the less-than-traditional surroundings of Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Stadium.
Suddenly Rushworth is a man in demand.
Next Wednesday he starts life as The Journal’s new cricket columnist.
The new county season, which for Durham starts on Friday against the local university, should tell us whether what prompted the turnaround in Rushworth’s cricketing fortunes was a permanent step up or a purple patch.
As he admits: “People will be looking to me to see if it was a fluke.”
If it was, he did well to keep it up so long.
Rushworth’s big break came with 5-31 – the first career-best – in a 40-over game at home to Nottinghamshire on June 3. He never looked back.
Later that week he recorded another first five-wicket haul – this time in the Championship – at home to Warwickshire.
In all he bowled 210 first-class overs, taking 38 wickets with swing bowling perfect for the dank conditions the 2012 campaign was almost invariably played in.
Of those Division One bowlers who sent down more than 100 overs, only Abdur Rehman and team-mate Graham Onions bettered his average of a wicket for every 16.39 runs conceded.
Rushworth reflected: “It was a massive boost to my confidence.
“When I came into the team for that Notts game my only thought was to try and keep my spot in the team for the next game.
“You do kind of feel a bit of pressure not having been in the team from the start, but when you try too hard that is when you tend to go around the park. You just have to have confidence in your ability.
“To get two five-fers in the space of a week was great.
“From there, every time I had the ball in my hand I thought I was going to take wickets. It was phenomenal.” The improvement even seeped into his batting – definitely his second string – extending his modest best score to 28.
Rushworth added: “It’s all confidence. Things off the field were going well too and personally everything seemed to click.”
Henry’s birth extended the feel-good factor, although it did stop any thoughts of keeping the ball rolling with winter cricket.
Rushworth said: “Having the baby has kept me quite busy. He’s quite chilled-out basically so it hasn’t been too stressful.
“With him coming in October it was a good time and it was nice to have a bit of down-time from cricket.
“Normally I would have looked at the option of a bit of cricket overseas in the winter but I’m quite happy to have spent the first months with him.
“It’s nice to have a bit of a break to freshen the mind and the body.”
The season has already started well – and early – the prestige game in the Middle East allowing him to escape the miserable conditions hampering the preparations of a Durham squad unable to afford a pre-season tour.
He said: “That was a massive honour. “I don’t think the lads who’ve been at home have been able to do much outside
“It was nice to get outside on the grass and play a competitive game. You can get the cobwebs off.
“It felt good out there, the ball came out nicely, although they were batsman-friendly conditions.”
There will be pressure on Durham at the start of the season and Rushworth’s 2012 form has ensured plenty will be on his shoulders.
Last year began with hopes high but while Rushworth far exceeded his, most disappointed.
No win in their first 10 Championship games set up a relegation battle and cost captain Phil Mustard his job.
Replacement Paul Collingwood inspired a surge to respectability, but Durham have got used to better.
If Collingwood’s captaincy offered hope, this winter has dampened it. There are still plans for an overseas player but it is unlikely to be before June that target Jacques Rudolph arrives.
Right now there have been no new faces since the retirements of Ian Blackwell this spring and Michael Di Venuto halfway through last season. Plunkett has gone too.
The top-order, Durham’s biggest achilles heel last season, remains worryingly light on experience.
Keaton Jennings and Michael Richardson have just 22 first-class appearances between them.
The onus might again be on the bowlers to do more than their fair share.
Rushworth admitted: “There is always pressure on you as a bowler.
“You need to take wickets to win games. I wouldn’t say there’s any more since the likes of Diva and Blackie have retired.
“Everybody is quite confident going into the new season. The key is to start well because there is quite a lot of cricket in the first two months.
“The start we had last year disappointed a lot of people, including the players.
“We showed towards the end we should have done better.”
:: DON’T miss Chris Rushworth’s new column starting nex Wednesday in The Journal.