Durham v Nottinghmshire, Chester-le-Street, 1st day September 17, 2013

Durham blitz brings title a step closer

Durham 207 for 8 (Mustard 77, Collingwood 53*, Adams 4-49) lead Nottinghamshire 78 (Harrison 3-4, Rushworth 3-24, Onions 3-30) by 129 runs

It was surely fitting that Paul Collingwood should steer Durham away from trouble in their crucial match against Nottinghamshire.

When Collingwood was appointed captain of Durham's Championship side in July 2012, the team were bottom of Division One and without a victory that season.

But, little over a year later, Collingwod has helped transform them and, as captain, led them to 13 wins in 20 games. If they win this match, they will have won a club record five Championship matches in succession and, more importantly, a third title in six years. Coming into this game requiring a maximum of 21 more points, they now require a further 17, in the unlikely event that Yorkshire should take full points from their final two games. For Collingwood, who earlier in his career was known as a reluctant captain, it is a remarkable achievement.

It is even more remarkable bearing in mind the obstacles he has faced. Coming into this season, Durham had the disadvantage of a 2.5 point penalty for breaching the salary cap last year and financial constraints that prohibited the signing of an overseas player. Injury then robbed them of the services of senior batsman Dale Benkenstein, while the head coach, Geoff Cook, suffered a heart attack in June that cast a cloud over the club for several weeks. Thankfully, Cook is recovering well. England calls, Lions calls and injuries have all added to the burden.

The obstacle on this occasion was a tricky pitch. Until Collingwood came to the crease, 15 wickets had fallen within the first 48 overs of the day and there was an outside chance that Nottinghamshire, despite having succumbed to their lowest score since 2010, might take a first innings lead. The highest stand of the game had been only 20 and no individual player had surpassed 17. Andre Adams, who claimed 4 for 27 in an excellent 13-over opening spell, was proving as demanding as ever.

But first with Scott Borthwick and then with Phil Mustard, his predecessor as captain, Collingwood put the quality of this pitch into perspective. In a style that would be familiar to those who witnessed his many rearguard innings for England, Collingwood refused to be drawn into pushing at anything wide and, in allowing the ball to come to him, avoided the hard-handed prods that undid so many others.

While others drove, he deflected; while others chased, he nudged; while others perished, he was patient. It is no coincidence that he survives into day two having batted longer than anyone else.

Perhaps just as importantly, Collingwood's partnership with Mustard - 121 runs in 35 overs - will have alleviated Durham's concerns about the possibility of incurring a points penalty for preparing a poor pitch. While Jack Birkenshaw, the ECB's Pitch Liaison Officer, will return to watch the second day's play before reaching a verdict on this surface, there is no chance whatsoever that the maximum sanction of 24 points will be imposed. Even the lesser sanction, eight points, is highly unlikely.

While it is true that the pitch offered assistance off the seam, to define it as "excessive" - the criteria by which it could incur a penalty - would be harsh. In truth, some excessively poor batting and some admirable bowling were the more relevant ingredients in a day that, in all, saw 18 wickets fall. The early start and autumnal weather might also be relevant and it is worth noting that a similar Durham attacked bowled out Derbyshire for only 63 on Saturday. In such conditions, they pose a desperately tough challenge.

Perhaps Nottinghamshire's decision to bat first was questionable. Given the reputation of this surface as something approaching a seam bowler's paradise, choosing to bat at 10.15am in mid-September was something of a surprise. To be fair though, Durham have batted first in every Championship game on the ground this season whether they have won the toss or not, so perhaps Nottinghamshire's attempt to adopt a similar method was not so far wide of the mark as the scoreline suggests. Collingwood later confirmed that Durham, too, would have chosen to bat first.

The execution of the decision was far more at fault. Faced with some probing bowling from the excellent pairing of Graham Onions and Chris Rushworth, who have 63 and 51 wickets respectively this season, Nottinghamshire produced a feeble performance. Some batsmen - such as Samit Patel and David Hussey - pushed too hard at the ball, some - such as Riki Wessels - played around the ball, some - such as Chris Read or Adams - missed slogs and some - James Taylor - did not play a stroke at all.

It was a wretched display of batting and resulted in Nottinghamshire being bowled out 20 minutes before lunch for their second-lowest total this century (following the 59 they made against Yorkshire at Trent Bridge in 2010) and their lowest ever against Durham. James Whitaker, one of the England selectors, can only have left more impressed with Onions, though whether he feels performances in such conditions are relevant to the challenges to come in Australia is debatable.

On the bright side, it should enable Nottinghamshire to leave in good time for the YB40 final against Glamorgan at Lord's on Saturday. The start times on each day of this game have been brought forward to 10.15am to enable Notts to catch an 8pm flight booked for Friday. There seems little chance of them missing it and a contingency plan has been put in place to allow them to fly on Thursday. Graeme Swann, who will feature in the side on Saturday, was in Durham to bowl in the nets with the white ball.

One man travelling in the other direction - a little further, actually - was Ben Stokes. The allrounder, who had been on duty with England, underwent a scan on his hamstring at 8am on Tuesday morning and, after receiving an all clear, embarked on a 313-mile drive from Southampton to Durham, where he replaced Usman Arshad in the side. Within minutes he was batting and, attempting a firm drive at a wide ball, was caught at third slip without scoring.

Fortunately for Durham, they were rescued by Collingwood and Mustard. While Collingwood, save one lofted on drive and a powerful pull, played few memorable strokes, Mustard accelerated after a slow start and, as Notts' bowlers became more tired and frustrated, reeled off a succession of firm drives. His individual score was only one fewer than Notts managed in total.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo