Can anyone stop Durham at the moment?
If ever there was a game for the Riversiders to wobble in, this was it. Straight from the not inconsiderable heat of battle at Scarborough minus three of the five men who bowled them to victory there, they are ploughing on to a third County Championship title regardless.
Four of the 5.5 points they needed to make up on leaders Yorkshire have been bagged from this game in hand. It is hard to see them not getting the 16 extra on offer for a win.
Even with their many absentees Durham have some talented players. Graham Onions is the best fast bowler on the county circuit, Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick have made strong cases to be part of England’s winter shadow batting squad in Australia. Chris Rushworth again proved he is the kind of under-rated seamer needed to win a Championship.
But Ben Stokes is with England, Callum Thorp hamstrung, Jamie Harrison has an ankle complaint and Dale Benkenstein’s season ended in May. Mark Wood is “hopeful” his side will recover in time to travel to Derbyshire next week.
A squad that started the season small has been chipped away at.
Even Paul Collingwood thinks his side are “over-achieving” which, wittingly or not, is a huge tribute to his captaincy and Durham’s coaching. Their one player of real experience, Collingwood has not managed a century all season but while the crunch games are coming, important knocks are starting to follow.
A fifth Championship 50 of 2013 eluded him, but the biggest partnership of the match, in tandem with a restrained Phil Mustard, took Durham from a reasonable position – 90-5, 223 ahead – to a dominant one.
“We could have crumbled,” said Onions. “That’s invaluable to have that calm head on old shoulders. He’s been there, done that and is a key person in our side because of his professionalism. It was a key partnership.
“Now we’re in a really good position to kick on for a 400 lead but potentially we could have been bowling earlier than we would have liked to bowl them out for 220, 230.”
Collingwood’s innings had no highlights to compare with Stoneman’s consecutive cover drives to kick-start the innings (the dab behind square was its signature shot) but it was everything his team needed.
There had been nothing startling about Durham’s batting until then, the top five all making double figures but none more than 22. Collingwood and Mustard both unfussily bettered that. Mustard did reach his fifth half-century this season and now Durham’s biggest headache is if and when to declare, with the lead at 345, more than any team has scored batting fourth to win at Chester-le-Street.
“There’s rumours the weather isn’t going to be great on Friday so we’re going to try and push the run rate up and get the runs reasonably quickly to get into a strong position,” Onions commented. “It’s going to be key with the new ball. We’ve not talked about (an overnight declaration). It’s important you don’t look too far ahead.”
In the morning Rushworth produced what must surely be a contender for the best wicketless spell of the season. The problem was, so many of the balls in his 7-3-6-0 were of the type that used to have fast bowler’s growling to hapless batsmen, “That’s too good for three, lad”. His team-mates swung the ball less so when the batsmen groped at it, they were at least able to edge it. There was plenty of that as, in what is a theme of recent matches here, the visiting batting looked hapless.
It must be said, Durham are not the only ones seriously depleted. Matt Prior has been rested by England, who have taken Chris Jordan and Luke Wright, Ed Joyce is with Ireland, Matt Machan with Scotland, Amjad Khan’s season has been ended by injury and Monty Panesar’s Sussex career by poor bladder control.
Luke Wells swished the bat twice in quick succession, first to edge Onions behind, then to chastise himself.
Rory Hamilton-Brown played a million-dollar drive through mid-off from the next ball but did not add to it before Mustard dived in front of Collingwood to take an superb catch.
Nightwatchman James Anyon outlasted them both but when Mitchell Claydon dug his fifth ball of the day in, he could only fend it back.
When Brown cut for four it was only the third boundary in 15 morning overs. All-rounder Usman Arshad performed the invaluable task of mopping up the tail, Sussex losing three wickets for eight runs.
Harry Finch played across one, and Will Beer and Steven Magoffin pushed and wafted the ball into Mustard’s gloves. Claydon finished the innings off by bowling Lewis Hatchett. Sussex avoided the follow-on, but made less than half Durham’s score.