A year to remember 

Ex-Newcastle United goalkeeper Steve Harper speaks to Paul Collingwood ahead of his testimonial year about his career, the future of cricket and the fallout from Durham CCC’s demotion and 48-point penalty this season

Paul Collingwood was born in Shotley Bridge in May 1976. He’s a cricketing all-rounder who played 68 tests for England, averaging over 40. He has played in three successful Ashes series and led England to its first ICC trophy by winning the 2010 WorldTwenty20. Still going strong in 2017, 21 years after he made his first-class debut, I caught up with him ahead of his well-deserved testimonial year with Durham CCC

How are the plans for the new season, given the severe penalties imposed on Durham CCC by the England and Wales Cricket Board?* 

When the penalties were announced last season, it was almost like someone had died. Initially, it was gut-wrenching. Being relegated is one thing but then also to be penalised 48 points in the four-day format was almost like imposing a two-year penalty as it’s virtually impossible for us to be promoted straightaway. Since the two-division format came in, Durham is the only club that hasn’t been relegated and that has taken an incredible effort from everyone. Even last season, we were in danger but produced a couple of big wins to stay in Division One.

In recent years, Durham CCC managed to create an international venue and facilities and provided a fruitful production line of international players. But without the catchment area of other parts of the country and the bidding process for Test packages when you’re unsure of the opposition, Durham paid a heavy financial cost and made it difficult to make money.

Durham is now financially in a good position and there’s a real sense of determination among our talented group of young players to get the club back to where it belongs.

There have been numerous fantastic achievements in your 20-plus years at Durham. Are there any moments in particular that stand out? 

From an individual point of view, it was an honour to be awarded my County Cap and that’s something I’ll never forget. I always wanted to play for England but you have to be a county cricketer first.

Also I have very fond memories of the 2013 season, when we won the County Championship. Unfortunately, Geoff Cook suffered a heart attack that year but there was great togetherness among the team. It was as though winning the Championship was meant to be. We had an inner strength that helped make things happen. The previous year we’d almost been relegated so to have such a big turnaround was a real highlight of my county cricket career.

You averaged over 40 in your test career yet you’re renowned for your determination and being one of the best fielders in the world… 

When you play for England you quickly realise that there a lot of cricketers who are a lot better than you but that it is possible to bridge that gap. I knew I wasn’t a Tendulkar, Kallis or Lara, but you can still find a way to score a run-a-ball 50 or make runs up with your fielding. I had mental strength and I worked my socks off. When you’re an international cricketer playing all forms of the game, you can be playing 280 days of the year so you have to find ways to switch off and relax.

You’ve played cricket in some amazing places around the world, where are your favourites? 

Being a cricketer is such a privileged job that I didn’t realise just how much fun I’d have when I first became a professional. Travelling with England has really opened my eyes to different places. I’d never considered going to Cape Town as a youngster but it’s a beautiful and vibrant city. When you’re playing cricket at Newlands you have Table Mountain as a backdrop as well as a Castle lager brewery; it’s perfect!

Lords is obviously also very special as the home of cricket with all of its traditions. You can’t replicate walking through the Long Room and down the steps onto the field.

Barbados is also special in that you’re training or playing hard but an hour later, you can be on the beach.

Sydney is pretty special, too, and where I retired from Test cricket. I played three seasons in Melbourne when I was a youngster and, at the time, I dreamed of representing England in an Ashes series in Australia. To finish my Test career in Sydney having achieved what I consider the most difficult thing to do – winning an Ashes series in Australia [England won 3-1] – it doesn’t get better than that.

How do you see the future of cricket in its varying formats? 

Test cricket remains the ultimate test for anyone wanting to play the game. In those five days you will be tested in every aspect of your game: technically, mentally and tactically. As a sportsman, you want to be pushed, so there’s no greater challenge.

Twenty20 is fantastic viewing and cricket has benefited hugely from this format. Sometimes people don’t recognise the skill that’s involved. There’s also pressure. You’re expected to do something well but also very quickly and the game has evolved to the point that batting has gone through the roof.

My only concern is that in India, where cricket is almost a religion, the viewing figures for Test cricket are down and what happens in India tends to filter out elsewhere.

Test cricket in England is always well supported and when we play abroad we’re very well backed too, but even the India v Pakistan Test matches weren’t being sold out so there’s clearly a problem there.

That said, the interest in the white-ball format of the game has gone through the roof!

*In October 2016, the ECB relegated Durham CCC to Division 2, docked the club 48 points and imposed other penalties due to financial difficulties.

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