It was as if Durham were proving a point by leaving it to the stand-ins to overpower Sussex yesterday and go 14.5 points clear at the top of the County Championship.
With three games to go, a third title in six years is theirs to lose. Having so comprehensively outclassed the two teams now immediately below them in the table, that is looking less and less likely.
Durham have won their last two home games by margins which just should not be possible at low-scoring Chester-le-Street with a full side, never mind such a depleted one.
Graham Onions took his 50th and 51st Championship wickets in only his ninth game this season, but it was Usman Arshad and Mitchell Claydon who led Durham to a 285-run win with bat and ball.
Arshad was only playing because Ben Stokes is on England duty today. Claydon was recalled on Monday when Mark Wood and Jamie Harrison picked up injuries. If Harrison’s ankle recovers as Durham expect, it could be Claydon’s farewell appearance.
Twenty-year-old Arshad has ten Championship wickets at an average of less than seven. Claydon claimed more scalps in his comeback game than in a three-match loan with Second Division Kent.
Earlier Arshad chipped in with a reassuring if ultimately irrelevant 34 from 47 balls, Claydon 12 from 14.
The day began with supporters debating the merits of an overnight declaration. Two days was plenty to bowl out Sussex but Durham – stung by an April declaration against Yorkshire which backfired – worried the weather might leave them having to get the job done before 6pm. They batted on, and finished it before three.
The sound of Durham’s victory song blaring out of the dressing room must be getting repetitive for Paul Collingwood and his fellow Wearsiders. It is the Blaydon Races. “We had to look over our shoulders in terms of weather and after the declaration earlier on in the season that wicket felt as though it was flattening out a lot on Wednesday afternoon so I felt we had to get a few more runs on the board,” Collingwood explained.
“It couldn’t have gone any better. There were some outstanding performances.”
A few weeks ago Arshad was just a name to many Durham supporters. Known by his team-mates as “Benny” – a mutation of the nickname given him as a Mr Bean-loving youngster – the Yorkshire-born all-rounder was making only his second First-Class appearance, but you would never have known.
Off the mark with a six the previous day following a grinding partnership between Collingwood and Phil Mustard, he bowled with calmness and success.
“We all knew Usman Arshad was a good bowler but to show the maturity and skill level he did – at times I didn’t even have to captain him, he was telling the fielders where to go,” revealed Collingwood.
“To have that maturity was really superb and he looks really good with the bat as well. He could be an important player in the run-in.”
His three wickets for two runs in 15 balls sped up a Sussex collapse of eight for 45 after lunch. A 48-run partnership between Chris Nash and Michael Yardy had reminded Durham it was not going to be the stroll they might have expected when Onions and low bounce undid Luke Wells three balls into Sussex’s second innings.
But for the third day running, Claydon took a wicket in his first over of the day, responding to Yardy’s driven four by coming around the wicket to claim an lbw. Another full ball did for Nash after the break. Rory Hamilton-Brown then followed an outswinger for the Australian’s sixth wicket of the match. Arshad took as many, cheaper, simply by bowling straight and consistently. The line Joe Gatting pushed down was perfect.
Sussex’s batsmen had not learned their lesson, Harry Finch and Will Beer playing around consecutive balls to perish the way Nash and Yardy had.
When Arshad was denied his hat-trick Onions and Chris Rushworth were brought back to finish the job. A stretching Keaton Jennings held on second time around at point before Rushworth got the wicket which was the absolute minimum his bowling deserved over the three days. Steve Garratt still made him sweat over it, taking a long time pondering if the inswinger was stump-bound before flicking Ben Brown’s pad.
When Lewis Hatchett flashed hard Scott Borthwick took a catch over his shoulder, and Sussex had been bowled out twice for under 120,
It made you wonder what Durham had been so worried about in the morning – or it would if you had not seen Joe Root lead Yorkshire past 339 at Chester-le-Street in April.
Mustard batted responsibly on Wednesday and it held for a couple of overs while he got his eye in yesterday morning. It took 16 balls for the batsmen to find the boundary.
When he wildly swung at a Hatchett no-ball and the ball flew over the third man boundary, it was clear the fun was on. Mustard’s 16 from 17 balls took him to 73, his highest score this season. Having shown Twenty20 batting to be his strongest suit in second-team cricket this season, Arshad enjoyed himself by adding a run-a-ball 18 to his overnight score.
Beer had to work for the catch Arshad skied, not picked out as Gatting was by Mustard. As soon as Claydon and Rushworth got the lead past 400, Collingwood waved them in.
While others have tried and failed to buy success, hard-up Durham’s is a local team for local players.
“That’s one of the most satisfying parts of my job at the moment,” commented Collingwood. “I’ve had my time with the international stuff and all the euphoria of that but this is what floats my boat now, seeing the youngsters come in and do so well, it’s magnificent.”