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Durham claim third Championship title

George Dobell at Chester-le-Street
September 19, 2013

Durham 256 (Collingwood 88*, Mustard 77, Adams 4-69) and 69 for 2 beat Nottinghamshire 78 (Harrison 3-4) and 246 (Mullaney 72, Hussey 57) by eight wickets
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Durham captain Paul Collingwood and his team-mates celebrate with the Championship trophy © PA Photos
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It is often stated that there are too many first-class counties. That, if a few were merged, the concentration of talent within the England domestic game would improve the overall standard.

Durham prove the shallowness of that argument. They prove that the talent pool is not finite and that, if you take the time to nurture and develop young players, provide inspiration and opportunity, you will, in time, reap what you sow.

Durham have just celebrated their 21st birthday as a first-class club with their third County Championship title in six seasons. What is more, they have done it with a team - and it really is a team rather than a collection of individuals - drawn from the community they represent. They have done it through years of identifying the best young players in the region and providing them with the best coaching and the most opportunities they can manage. In an age where it is common for teams in all sports to buy success, Durham have done it the old-fashioned way.

But if Durham did not have first-class status, this could never have happened. At best, a few of their players would have found a home at other counties. Realistically, many of them would have been lost to the game. They have not only vindicated the decision to take first-class cricket to the northeast of England, but the decision to persist with 18 first-class counties. In a perfect world, there might even be more.

There were some common themes in the words of the architects of Durham's success as the champagne corks popped. One was the shared respect and affection everyone at this club has for the head coach, Geoff Cook, and the unifying effect the shock of his illness provided on the entire club. "I know every man in that dressing room wanted to do it for Geoff," Paul Collingwood said as he clutched the trophy.

Another was the spirit created by the shared background of so many of those involved. Not just the players, but many of the coaching staff and the administrative staff, too. Again and again, they spoke of the "spirit of people from the northeast" as a contributory factor in Durham's ability to rise to the many challenges they faced.

Collingwood put it like this: "We kept 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. It seems to be inside the northeast 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."

David Harker, the Durham chief executive, agreed. "I don't like to talk about it too much," he said, of that fact so many people at the club hail from the northeast, "because it can seem arrogant or parochial, but I believe there is something special.

"There is a sense of camaraderie; there is a sense of belonging to something that extends beyond the eleven guys in the dressing room. There is a sense of roots and pride. Culture is a consistent pattern of behaviour over time and these guys have grown up together, they know each other and they are comfortable with each other, they have similar background so there is a cohesion here that helps fuel team spirit."

None of this means there is anything inherently better about the spirit of people in the northeast to those in Sussex, or Somerset or Lancashire or Yorkshire. Indeed, several of those clubs have enjoyed success with a similar ethos to Durham. It is just that, while some teams sometimes struggle to maintain a shared vision or shared values, Durham have fashioned a team that have graduated through the same system and understand each other and the culture of the club. When times are hard, when players are forced to find that little extra, these things matter.

Times have been hard, too. While half-a-dozen other counties spent their pre-seasons in Barbados, Durham had only two days of grass nets before their first game. They could not even afford the marquees that were utilised by the likes of Essex and Middlesex.

Instead, they climbed Beinn Dubh, a mountain in the Loch Lomond region. The entire playing and coaching team helped one another through snow and ice to reach the summit. Collingwood insists that, as a team building exercise it was invaluable. As a metaphor for their success, it also works neatly. They've been climbing mountains all season.

Then there was the loss of Dale Benkenstein to injury, the heart attack suffered by Cook, the inability of the club to afford an overseas player or other new recruits and the loss, to various England squads, of key players. They lost two of their first three matches, too.

It is in times of such adversity that team spirit is worth more than expensive overseas players or players from other counties seeking to advance their individual careers.

Collingwood felt that the seven-wicket victory over Yorkshire at Scarborough at the end of August - a game he described "as close as you can get to Test cricket" - was the moment he knew his side could win this title. In it, Stokes scored a century and delivered 33 second-innings overs; a herculean effort.

In truth, however, Durham had been building ever since July 29, 2012, when they won their first game of the previous season by 15 runs against Middlesex. The appointment of Collingwood as captain changed everything.

In some ways, Durham have made a virtue of necessity. Had they had the finance, they would have signed several players ahead of this season: Jacques Rudolph, James Harris and Jack Brooks among them. Scott Borthwick, who requires 15 more for 1000 Championship runs, would probably not have batted at No. 3 and Mark Wood, a fast bowler in the Simon Jones mould, might never have played.

But times have changed. Next year the club will spend around £1.2m on player salaries compared to a total of around £1.9m to the end of March 2012. The likes of Ian Blackwell, Liam Plunkett and Michael De Venuto have already gone. Steve Harmison will soon join them. There is a danger that, with Collingwood a year away from retirement, Ben Stokes on the verge of an England career and Graham Onions now 31 and carrying a huge burden, that the pace of change may need to slow. Youth is wonderful, but it requires leadership.

Such issues can wait. With one game to play, Durham have the chance to win a record 11 games in a Division One season and extend their club record winning streak to six successive Championship games.

They have produced, from boyhood to manhood, a side that not only deserves the greatest prize in English domestic cricket but that contains one or two players who could benefit the England team for a generation. They have done exactly what county cricket is supposed to do and emerged as a reminder to their rivals of the virtues of self-reliance and developing local players.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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