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Collingwood looks up from the bottom

"It could be an 18-year-old having an exceptional season, it could be a 40-year-old like me" Getty Images

It was the smell of the grass that made up his mind, Paul Collingwood said, looking out over the expanse of it that he knows best.

We are taking in the lush spring green of Emirates Riverside, as Durham prepare for the start of their season and reflect on the price they have been forced to pay for overstretching themselves in their lofty ambitions to become a major international centre.

It is the same expanse that Collingwood contemplated six years ago, in the wake of being told that his own international status had effectively been terminated, and wondered if he had the will to carry on. He had already retired from Test cricket, but having led England to their first global silverware in the World T20 title the year before, the decision by the selectors to hand the T20 captaincy to Stuart Broad hit him "like a juggernaut."

He thought seriously about quitting altogether. "But then I thought about things and realised there was so much I would miss massively, even the negative things like having to pick yourself up mentally when you are making low scores," he said.

"I played my first competitive cricket match when I was seven. It's in my blood. And I know it sounds ridiculous but I thought about the smell of the grass and how much I'd miss that and I realised that I didn't want to stop." He still hasn't, even on the eve, virtually, of his 41st birthday, as he prepares for his sixth season as Durham captain.

"I think I've probably surprised a few people that I'm still here, but I still believe I have something to give. I'm still learning new things, and honestly, I've worked hard in the gym and I don't think I've ever felt fitter."

There is the matter of motivation, too, which, despite the high probability of being marooned in Division Two of the Championship for at least two seasons, thanks to the draconian penalties imposed by the ECB in return for keeping the club alive, is still strong, if not stronger. If anything, he says, the pain of forced relegation and the challenge of starting 48 points behind everyone else, has fuelled it.

"I know it sounds ridiculous but I thought about the smell of the grass and how much I'd miss that and I realised that I didn't want to stop"

"You can sense a real determination among everyone to get the most out of the season," he said. "There is a real motivation. You know what it's like when you have adversity, it brings everyone together. The response from the players has been fantastic."

Like the chairman and chief executive and everybody else grateful that the club still has a future, Collingwood has been obliged to take the punishment on the chin. He admits that the dressing room has not found it easy.

"There was a lot of anger when we learned what was happening," he said. "The thing that hurts more than anything is that we go out there year in year out and perform as well as we can and we have carried on doing that despite all the cutbacks.

"From the players' point of view, we felt like we are the ones being penalised when we didn't really have anything to do with it. That doesn't seem fair.

"Is it too harsh? It depends which way you look at it.

"From the club's point of view, they have done everything they were asked to do [in terms of developing an international venue]. From the ECB's point of view, they might say that a county should never get into such a financial position where they are unable to pay the players for two months, and that's got to stop.

"But it has happened. It is not the end of the world, we are still playing first-class cricket. At some point you have got to put it on the back-burner and get on with the job."

That job begins with the visit of Nottinghamshire to Chester-le-Street on Good Friday, bringing an immediate chance to measure Durham against a side expected to be among the front runners in Division Two, and already with a win under their belt.

"A good start would be very useful, especially against a good team like Notts," Collingwood said. "On paper you are looking at pretty much an international side, so to get off to a good start against them would give us some momentum and be great for confidence.

"But if we are being honest we are going to need everything to go our way if we are to overcome the 48 points.

"I heard what the chairman [Ian Botham] said about us being the best side and I love Beefy's optimism, but I know county cricket and we're not going to roll teams over. There is a lot of talent in Division Two and we have to respect that.

"And losing Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick - that's pretty much 3000 runs out of the dressing room.

"We've got the addition of an overseas player this year, which we haven't had too many times in the past. Hopefully he will bring a lot of runs at the top of the order.

"I am confident that we will take 20 wickets. Our bowling attack is very strong. We have a great blend, seasoned professionals such as Graham Onions and Chris Rushworth and some fantastic up-and-coming bowlers as well. In addition, we will have Woody [Mark Wood] at the start.

"Although 48 points is a lot of points you can't write us off completely. It will need two or three players to have the season of their lives but something special could happen.

"It could be an 18-year-old having that exceptional season, it could be a 40-year-old like me."

Which brings the conversation back to Collingwood's future. The body remains willing, the appetite sharp. But for how much longer? Will the grass still smell sweet this time next year?

"I'm just taking it year by year, and at the end of each season we review where we are. I've got things to consider. I don't want to be a player who outstays his welcome. I have to look at the fact that I'm on a decent wage and as the wages bill comes under pressure I will have to look at whether I'm blocking the way for a couple of younger players joining the squad.

"I'd like to think I have something to give in international cricket in terms of coaching, and I'm ridiculously lucky in that I have been able to spend 55 days last year and 60 days this winter with England, while still playing county cricket in the summer.

"I think I'll know when it's time to go and I'll be honest about it.

"But if I still feel I am pushing this team forward, still contributing in the dressing room, still scoring runs, taking wickets and taking catches - if I'm doing all those things, I want to continue."

The name of Durham's ground was corrected at 1130 on April 13