When Muhammad Azharullah edged the final delivery of Jamie Harrison’s last over just shy of the slips, it felt like a great opportunity had been missed.
The truth is, Durham had not drawn a match they ought to have won, they had just failed to come out on top in a game which should always have ended as it did – with honours even.
Taking ten wickets in 69 overs on a lifeless Wantage Road pitch was never a likely outcome.
However, Paul Collingwood has taught his Durham team to believe in the improbable and at Trent Bridge, Derby and Scarborough last season they were rewarded for it.
The belief created lifted the champions a notch above their ability last season. A winter spread far and wide as the squad thinned out has evidently done nothing to dilute it.
That Durham took nine wickets in the first 60 of those overs raised expectations and from there they ought to have started their title defence with a win, but viewing the game, or even its final day, as a whole there was nothing to be disappointed about.
Of course there were what-might-have-beens. Durham’s conservative approach to batting was slightly surprising and the catch Phil Mustard dropped off Graham Onions routine for someone of his ability.
Yet it would have been forgotten had Azharullah and Rob Newton, two short of the match’s tenth half-century, not seen out the last 26 minutes.
Going into the final hour Durham needed three wickets and, although Newton was standing firm on 39 not out, there was a real belief the champions could get them.
Harrison’s primal scream as he sent Steven Crook’s stumps splattering across the outfield showed it was not confined to the travelling fans.
Collingwood has enjoyed success as Durham’s captain by trusting his youngsters and Scott Borthwick was brought on to replace the left-armer for one last spell.
David Murphy played his fifth delivery straight to short leg Keaton Jennings for a duck. A googly from the next ball took out Maurice Chambers’ off stump.
Borthwick had to watch Onions next over wanting the fast bowler to take the winning wicket but knowing if he did not, he would be on a hat-trick. When he had his chance he wasted it, serving up a long hop Azharullah hit to the boundary.
It looked as if Onions had dropped the fast bowler at leg slip six overs later but he insisted afterwards the ball had not carried.
Harrison bowled the last two overs from the Wantage Road End and although he found the outside of Azharulla’s bat from the nervy final delivery Northants survived.
For the first time in the match, the new ball did the trick for Durham.
Many view Onions’ career in a Test-match context but his hunger to win games for Durham is as great as ever. He was angry when his team-mates did not join in enthusiastically enough with an lbw appeal and stomping up and down when Mustard, moving right, put down James Middlebrook on 15 not out.
Having already seen a Stephen Peters edge fly over the slip cordon, you wondered if this might not be the visitors’ day.
They seemed immune to such doubts even before Chris Rushworth had the opener caught behind.
The one thing the pitch was doing to help was providing the occasional scuttler.
Kyle Coetzer lost his middle stump to one from Onions, who also demolished Matt Spriegel’s furniture to reduce the hosts to 68-3.
From there it was a case of chipping away and some brilliance and a bit of fortune had Northants five down by tea. Gareth Breese took a catch diving left at point to remove Middlebrook again in sight of a fifty, while low bounce from the final delivery of the session trapped Andrew Hall lbw.
As a big-hitting left-arm bowler David Willey may have a future as an England Twenty20 international but here, unable to bowl because of a stress fracture, his side needed him to bat responsibly. He did not.
Further wound up when Borthwick hit him trying for a run-out, he repeatedly flashed the bat at Onions and on 16 tried to play the sort of backfoot forcing shot of Brian Lara out to win a game, not Geoffrey Boycott trying to save one. Borthwick’s reactions to pluck the ball head-high at second slip were excellent.
Unfortunately for Durham, his team-mates were more responsible.
The visiting batsmen too had been judicious. After their aggression at the end of day three they were not in a rush for the 350 lead they wanted.
Perhaps it might have been different had Michael Richardson not played on to his stumps trying to dab Chambers behind square on 59. He was angry at a second half-century of the match unconverted.
Neither Breese nor Usman Arshad batted with the aggression showed first time around. Breese was lbw to Hall, Arshad stumped coming down the wicket to Middlebrook. It was the off-spinner’s fifth wicket on a pitch offering negligible turn.
Durham looked as if they might be set on batting until lunch but Hall removed the new-ball bowlers to set up the unexpectedly thrilling finish.