Sunday at Wantage Road marks the beginning of the end for Paul Collingwood.
England’s most-capped player, the only Englishman to lift a major global trophy and the last person to captain Durham to the County Championship is getting ready for his final season as a professional cricketer.
“It’s not definite,” says the 37-year-old. “It’s not 100% nailed on the head. But there’s always got to be a time when you have to move on and go down different avenues.
“It’s not 100% but it will be pretty close to it. But you never know what could happen.”
So Collingwood is looking to the future. Not just his own, but that of the county he will leave behind.
“It would be great to have a bigger squad and leave the club in a better financial situation but that’s out of my hands,” he comments. “But you’ll do what you can with the players you’ve got and I honestly believe the core players at this club are its future. If we keep hold of these guys for the next five, even ten, years it’s going to be a very strong outfit.
“Look at your Mark Stonemans, your Woodys (Mark Wood), Keaton Jennings can be a very good player, Rushy (Chris Rushworth) is probably what every county wants.
“I can probably go through about seven or eight players I believe will be here for some time to come making this county cricket club really strong.
“I feel as though the club’s in good hands. There’s good quality here and with the coaching set-up we’ve got, players should be coming through all the time.”
More important to Collingwood than building a good side is maintaining the ethos which saw them to last season’s title when all logic argued against it.
“Last year was one of the proudest moments of my life,” says a man who won the Ashes three times, made a Test double hundred in Australia and won the World Twenty20 as captain. I will judge how this year goes on the environment we create in the dressing room, more than results on the pitch or whether we’ve picked up that trophy again. It’s not all about doing well this year, it’s about doing well for the next five or ten years.
“You want an environment where every single player wants to get the best out of their ability. When everyone’s hungry to do well it doesn’t take too much managing.”
That environment will be more important still in 2014 after the loss of experienced players such as Dale Benkenstein, Will Smith and Callum Thorp. So far Australian John Hastings is the only senior replacement – and then not until the conclusion of the Indian Premier League – although the potential signing of Kumar Sangakkara would go a long way to filling the gaps on and off the pitch.
“I know our squad has been depleted a fair bit, but I see a lot of quality, so I’m excited about our prospects for this year,” says Collingwood.
“As long as we have that desire to keep on improving each other’s games, I’m confident we will keep on doing well. If you go over the past three years or so and look at the players we have lost – Liam Plunkett, Harmy (Stephen Harmison), Ian Blackwell, Dale Benkenstein, Michael Di Venuto – you would say we’d no chance but the talent coming through keeps on performing.
“These guys will make names as big as those who’ve left. That’s how much talent we’ve got.
“Losing so many players through the winter is going to push us to the limit in terms of fitness and all that kind of stuff but it is what it is. You’ve just got to get on with it. There’s no point crying about it. I’ll say exactly the same thing I said last season: As long as we avoid relegation I will be happy.
“It’s important we get back into that strategy that worked so well for us not just last season but the final seven games of 2012. The good thing is the guys know where they fit into the team.
“If you look at the guys on our books it looks like every time we put four seamers out we will be pretty strong.
“There’s going to be a bit of chopping and changing to the batting line-up. That’s the area we’ve really got to focus on to make sure we score enough runs.”
This week’s three-day game against Durham University was Collingwood’s only practice match before Durham’s title defence starts at Northampton on Sunday. He made good use of it with a first First-Class century since August 2012. Collingwood spent his winter coaching – as assistant, then head coach of Scotland, followed by a “secondment” as England’s fielding coach at the World Twenty20.
“The good thing about being head coach of Scotland was you can pretty much tell the players to do what you want so I had two great sessions with them in New Zealand,” he jokes. “With England I didn’t really have as much sway. I wasn’t going to go up to Stuart Broad and tell him to do a half-an-hour net session for me! I got a couple of hits in with the spinners and Mushy (spin coach Mushtaq Ahmed) but nothing too serious.
“I’ve probably had more grass net sessions than the rest of the Durham lads so I’m not overly concerned.
“The amount of work the England lads have put in behind the scenes is brilliant, so I tagged on the back of that. Pretty much every day was a full-on fitness session.
“I’m desperate if it is going to be my last year to finish off on a real high in terms of the runs I score and that kind of stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever been as fit. I know everybody says things like that but I don’t think I’ve been close to being as fit.”