Paul Collingwood believes he has hit upon a Durham side stronger than the one which claimed last season’s County Championship – and after yesterday’s 309-run win others will be acutely aware of the Riversiders’ breath on the back of their necks.
A week-and-a-half ago, Durham were in the Division One relegation zone. Victory over Sussex moved them up to fourth, with a game in hand on joint-leaders Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. Their next match is at Yorkshire, and they still have Notts to play at home.
The gap to the top is 29 points. Twenty-four are available per game.
The Riversiders have late-season pedigree under Paul Collingwood. Last year’s five-match winning streak started in late August. In 2012 they were bottom of the table until winning five of their last six games.
Most worryingly for the rest, Collingwood thinks his side is now better than last year’s title-winners.
“I do think we’ve improved on last season,” said the victorious captain. “That doesn’t guarantee anything. I think it was Andre Agassi who said if you don’t improve 10% every year you’re going backwards. Hopefully we’re improving quicker than that and we can continue to do that because there’s a hell of a lot of skill in there. A few of the players should be pushing for international honours because they’re that good.
“If we don’t have injuries we’re stronger (than in 2013). Once you start losing players during the game it really does hurt us a lot and it’s happened in three or four games this year. We had a scare with Rushy (Chris Rushworth, who suffered a minor side strain) in this game. We know they’re capable of (going on a long winning sequence).
“In that dressing room sometimes it’s ridiculous. The amount of talent and skill we’ve got in there, if you get on a roll you never know what will happen. But we’ll just keep looking at the next game.
“Mark Stoneman’s becoming a better player, Scotty Borthwick’s done superbly well, Keaton Jennings made 100. They all seem to be improving all the time. You guys see the final product but I see what they’re doing in training every day.
“I’m delighted with the way the club’s going and the way the guys are working every day to improve their own games.”
Durham’s batting has made great strides forward this season – as underlined by the 200-run second-innings partnership between Borthwick and Jennings which transformed an advantageous position into a dominant one.
Now their bowling is back up to scratch too. Ben Stokes was tremendous in this game, taking 10 wickets in a match for the first time with his best Durham bowling performance since dragging them to victory in August’s title-decider at Scarborough. With England losing a home series to Sri Lanka for the first time this week, he may be back in their squad by the time Durham pitch up at Headingley for the July 7 game.
Mark Wood will play as a batsman this weekend before stepping up his bowling. Graham Onions has been practicing his this week, and the county are cautiously optimistic both might feature in the three-day second-team game against Glamorgan, which starts in Middlesbrough on Tuesday. A fit Wood could make light of Stokes’ absence, while Onions can compensate in other areas.
But John Hastings is getting better with every game with bat and ball. He was denied a five-wicket haul yesterday when Rushworth had Lewis Hatchett caught in the slips to end the game with the 17th ball of a morning watched by around 50 fans.
Even the groundsman, Dave Measor, upped his game, producing his best pitch of the year. Those on the river side of what used to be called the Riverside are more bowler-friendly and therefore better for entertaining cricket. Durham would be well advised to play as many of their remaining three home games on that side of the square.
“This was more like an old Riverside pitch with a bit more pace and carry in it,” said Collingwood. “Once we got the ball swinging we knew we were in the game, although it took an exceptional spell by Stokes in the first innings to get the ball rolling.”
Usman Arshad has been reprimanded for bowling a beamer in last week’s Twenty20 defeat at home to Leicestershire. The all-rounder was taken out of the attack for the offence.