In a season of pretty consistent batting, two Durham players were yet to really fire. That changed yesterday.
Last year Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick were the rocks on which Durham’s County Championship success was built, scoring 1,000 runs apiece. They have not started 2014 in quite the same fashion.
Stoneman has been working hard on his balance at the crease in recent weeks, while Borthwick has been nursing two chipped fingers.
When Chris Rogers surprisingly chose to bowl on a gloriously sunny Chester-le-Street morning the pair were ninth and tenth in Durham’s Championship averages for the year.
By the end of it, both had raised their career-best scores considerably, just as Stoneman and Michael Richardson did the last time Durham played four-day cricket on this ground. They set another new mark, for Durham’s highest second-wicket partnership, and helped the county to maximum batting points on a ground with a reputation for being seamer-friendly which the last seven days of red-ball cricket have shown to be utterly redundant. It gave John Hastings the chance to sit in the dressing room all day, having only flown in from India on Saturday to make his debut. But it also suggests that when the Australian fast bowler finally gets the ball in his hand, he will have a quick introduction into how hard life is for Durham bowlers in 2014. The draw specialists will not find it easy taking 20 wickets on this pitch.
After Stoneman’s last century, in April’s run-fest with Yorkshire, Paul Collingwood questioned why the opener was consistently overlooked by the England set-up. An opening berth is up for grabs when the Three Lions welcome Sri Lanka to Lord’s a week on Thursday, but the 26-year-old from Sunniside will not get it. Even for an opener, he has made too many single-figure scores this season. Last week at Nottinghamshire was the first game this season where he has not been dismissed for less than ten, and he only batted once.
Yesterday’s was nearly another single-figure return, Dawid Malan putting down a routine catch at first slip when he had just seven.
He cashed in on his good fortune, and with England selectors Angus Fraser and James Whitaker watching, displayed the array of strokes the England Lions coaches ought to have been building on last winter.
Stoneman missed out on a century before lunch by just six runs, ripping to pieces an attack featuring a man further up the England pecking order in Steven Finn.
This was the first time this season Finn opened the first-innings bowling for Middlesex, but when the second new-ball came along, shortly after Stoneman went for 187, he was back in the queue. Balls marginally outside off stump were flicked through legside, wider deliveries cut to the boundary.
Anything remotely legside was often met with a brutal pull. Forty runs in Stoneman’s 47-ball half-century came in boundaries.
Sensing the mood, Keaton Jennings left him to it, contributing just 16 to an opening stand of 82 before jabbing down late to play a full Toby Roland-Jones onto his stumps.
Borthwick, who hopes to bowl, was similarly restrained at the start as always, but accelerated after lunch, overtaking his partner’s contribution in their third 50 together.
Middldesex’s bowling was if anything worse than their fielding, hardly befitting a top-of-the-table side. Spinners Paul Stirling and Ravi Patel becalmed Stoneman when in tandem, but there were far too many boundary balls, the rope crossed 55 times in the day.
Maximum batting points were achieved four overs before Durham closed on 411-4.
Borthwick pulled Roland-Jones for six, kicking his leg up Graham Thorpe-style as the ball flew to the boundary, while Stoneman greeted Neil Dexter’s reintroduction with consecutive fours pulled through mid-on.
Both men began offering chances Middlesex were incapable of taking.
Diving across Malan, John Simpson could only get his finger-ends to an edge he ought to have taken when Stoneman pushed at Tim Murtagh on 116. Had Finn not fallen over in his delivery stride, he might well have had the opener caught and bowled on 126.
Improbably, three chances went down at leg slip before Stoneman was eventually caught there, although the first two, to Rogers, were very difficult diving opportunities off consecutive Stirling overs. Stoneman was on 132, Borthwick 90.
Borthwick had progressed to 134 when Robson put him down there but made amends when Stoneman touched one down legside to end the 274-run partnership – beating Durham’s previous second-wicket best by Martin Love and current coach Jon Lewis.
Rogers ran Michael Richardson out from cover when he set off for a single, then changed his mind. Running between the wickets with Borthwick has been a risky business this season.
Ben Stokes was out 13 balls before the close, pulling a ball which did not get up, to bring out nightwatchman Mark Wood.
Gordon Muchall – fresh from 158 not out against Peter Siddle and Stuart Broad – is set to bat at eight, followed by Phil Mustard and Hastings.
Durham have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to scoring runs but taking wickets might not be so easy.