Geoff Cook at heart of Durham's title push
A lot is made of team spirit, perhaps too much at times. There is no doubt, though, that it has been a factor in Durham's ascent to the top of the Championship table as the season nears its conclusion, not least because of the news that reached their players on the morning of June 20 this year, news that their head coach - their father figure - was in hospital, his life in the balance.
Geoff Cook, in charge of the first team since 2007 and director of cricket since Durham became a first-class county in 1991, had been found unconscious on a riverside path near the county's headquarters at Chester-le-Street, having suffered a heart attack while on his morning run. His condition was so serious it was feared he might not survive.
Yet he did pull through. Not only that, he is back at work. As Durham defeated Sussex in three days last week to displace Yorkshire as favourites to win the Championship title - for the third time under Cook's guidance - the 61-year-old was on the field at the start of every day, providing throw-downs and catching practice, as if the mid-summer drama that had rocked his family, the club and his countless friends across the game had been something we had collectively imagined.
"I'm feeling absolutely fine," he said, thanking me for inquiring. "The medical people could not find anything physically wrong with my heart. I think it was just one of these electrical things where it got out of sync. It gave me a bit of a shock but I was very lucky in that some people were in the right place at the right time.
"I was running down by the river. I love running and have been doing it for years, so there was no particular reason for it to have happened. Luckily there was another guy, a Durham member as it happens, who was only a minute or so behind me and he began the process of helping me through in terms of resuscitation and getting some people to call for help."
It was three and a half weeks before he was released from hospital, during which time he admits there were moments when "it was touch and go" as doctors tried to stabilise his condition. Whether he returns to working at full capacity, having handed the reins temporarily to coaches Jon Lewis and Alan Walker, remains to be seen - but staying away during such an exciting phase of the Durham team's evolution was never likely, not least because he was in the minority tipping Durham to mount a title challenge.
"The vibes we were getting at the start of the season were that people thought we would get relegated," he said. But at the start of the year the targets I felt were realistic, depending on player availability, included finishing in the top three of the championship."
The key to Durham's success has been the accelerated development of home-produced players at a time when the retirement of several senior figures left the squad seemingly short on quality and experience. Where Durham would be carried, year after year, by the likes of Michael di Venuto, Dale Benkenstein, Ian Blackwell and Steve Harmison, the key contributors this season have been Mark Stoneman, Scott Borthwick, Chris Rushworth and Ben Stokes - with a little help, naturally, from the perennially brilliant Graham Onions.
"It is always pleasing to see players emerge from your own system," Cook said. "We had a game against Surrey recently where, if you excluded Collingwood who was pre-academy, there was only Will Smith who had not come through that system. They are not all going to be international cricketers but it is quite gratifying that they can play to a decent standard.
"We have lost some pretty effective players - Di Venuto and Blackwell left at the end of last year, Benkenstein injured after three or four games this year - so they have had to take on the extra responsibility and I think they have enjoyed doing that. They have been able to take on tough situations and have had the nerve to win games through expressing themselves under tough circumstances."
Cook is thrilled, in particular, to see Stoneman, Borthwick and Stokes starting to fulfil the potential he saw in them as raw teenagers. Borthwick, the legspinner, has found another dimension to his game after Cook promoted him to No. 3 in the batting order, in which position he has made three centuries.
"It has been a breakthrough year for Mark [Stoneman] in terms of consistency," Cook said. "He used to love to watch Di Venuto bat and Michael took him under his wing to a certain extent. He is 26 and has been around the first-team for probably five or six years now and you can see how he is learning to bat, learning how to put innings together, learning to turn up at a cricket ground every morning with the mentality of having to produce and he is doing it very well.
"Stokes continues to improve. There was huge expectation on him when he came on to the scene. He was belting the ball over the boundary on a regular basis and people thought 'he's got the talent, he'll just keep performing' but cricket's not like that.
"His bowling is coming on gradually, his batting probably in four-day cricket has not been as prolific as he would like this year. But the good thing from my point of view is that when we came to the limited overs stuff he took on the responsibility of actually winning a few games for us.
"He is growing up too. It was a bit of a chastening experience that he had in Australia [when he was sent home from the Lions tour] but those things can accelerate your progression. He has got a little family now, which is good, and he is doing a lot of the right things in terms of giving himself every chance of having a fantastic career.
"As for Borthwick, his skill is a tricky one because not many teams in England can carry a juvenile legspinner as their main spinner. He had a couple of good years supporting Blackwell who was a good performer for us, and he was learning his trade.
"Now suddenly he was having to be number one spinner. But batting at No. 8, if he was not bowling his overs - and here at the Riverside he does not bowl so many overs - it was difficult to justify playing him. So getting him up the order was the answer to that and he has relished it."
It is no coincidence that the new prominence taken by these players has coincided with Paul Collingwood's appointment as captain, replacing Phil Mustard last season at a time when relegation did look a possibility. Durham won five of their last six games under the former England allrounder's leadership in 2012 and he has steered them to another seven victories this season.
"Paul has a huge amount of experience and knows what is needed to win over an extended period in four-day games," Cook said. "Because of that experience and the confidence he instils in other players, up to now he has managed to get the best out of everybody. He made a very clever move as soon as he accepted the captaincy in that he immediately made it plain that the likes of Mitch Claydon, Stephen Harmison and Ian Blackwell would only participate in the first team in extreme circumstances and that immediately gave a vote of confidence to those who are remaining. And they have responded very well to that."
Cook will look at his own future once this season is finished. "I'm easing my way back in to it," he said. "But I still get a bit tired. In terms of running the team on a full-time basis, that has not been talked about yet. We'll sit down at the end of the season to discuss it.
"I'd like to be involved, of course. Cricket for a long time has been my life and Durham for the last 20-odd years. We have got an evolving team with some pretty decent young players and there are some exciting times ahead."
They begin with Durham at Derby this week, trying to overcome the in-form relegation battlers who have won three of their last four matches, while Yorkshire travel to Hove hoping not to be on the end of a Sussex backlash. The title could still go either way. The sentimental neutrals, you suspect, will be with Cook's boys.