IF you watched them bat for a little over a session yesterday, you might be forgiven for thinking if Durham tried to shoot themselves in the foot, they would probably miss right now.
They managed it against Lancashire. Loose batting and sub-standard change-bowling have been major factors behind a winless start which has left them bottom of the First Division.
But in arguably their most important game of the season so far, the symptoms of a team in disarray started to spread. Their luck is worsening, but so is their carelessness.
The recklessness of another dire batting display seeped into the field. Two slip catches were dropped, four run-out chances of varying difficulty missed, and a wicket thrown away because Jamie Harrison could not keep his feet behind a white line. Twenty-four of the 39 runs Lancashire lead have come from extras.
Despite some spirited bowling, Durham might already be out of this were it not for the return of the Chester-le-Street rain and the fact relegation-threatened champions Lancashire were almost as inept with the bat.
Durham can cite their fair share of misfortune this season, and there was more yesterday morning. Ian Blackwell’s back spasms ruled him out. Michael Di Venuto is missing with Achilles trouble. Then Phil Mustard lost the toss.
Durham could hardly complain about Lancashire getting first use of overcast conditions. You can say what you like about Mustard’s captaincy, but he is freakishly good at the toss of the coin.
Well though Lancashire used their advantage, their four seamers moving the ball impressively, most wickets were down to gross negligence by the batsmen. Not since 2008 have Durham been bowled out for less than the 102 they made in less than 37 overs. For a batting line-up with quality, it is not good enough.
If it were a one-off, it could be shrugged off, but this is the pattern of Durham’s season. Even at Taunton last week, where they passed 350 for the first time in 2012, it was distinctly below par. No matter how well they bat in 40-over cricket, the ripple effect is not being felt here.
It was the manner of the wickets that was so alarming. Fresh from what ought to have been confidence-boosting centuries last week, Mark Stoneman patted the ball gently off his hips to square leg, while Will Smith was bowled around his legs by a fast-medium bowler.
Gordon Muchall could have done himself an injury stretching so far chasing a wide ball. His reaction and an unconvincing delayed appeal suggested he had not got the feather Peter Willey detected. No matter. A shot that poor got what it deserved.
Ben Stokes was caught behind trying to withdraw his bat. Demoted to six, Paul Collingwood was at the crease in the tenth over.
At 34-4, the Riversiders had their most determined fighters there. They did what they could, but Collingwood is fighting his form, Dale Benkenstein his body.
The former captain is not fit to play having dislocated his shoulder earlier this month. He did anyway. The pain of watching his team struggle without him is greater. For the most part he showed dogged determination, facing 34 deliveries before he found the boundary.
Then, from nowhere came a drive at a wide ball, and a partnership worth 44 ended.
Collingwood looked more fluent, especially off the back foot, but for the second successive time his was an innings of great graft for little reward – a 73-ball 25 in this case before pushing half-forward to Luke Procter, on his way to a first Championship five-wicket haul.
Remarkably, 102 all out was not enough to put Durham out of the game. Graham Onions is back from England duty, so their attack looks better. Scott Borthwick and Collingwood took good slip catches as he reduced Lancashire to 19-4, but Muchall and Collingwood put down presentable offerings off Stokes.
Stephen Harmison and Smith both moved well to the ball but missed the stumps.
Durham could have run out either Procter or Paul Horton had Harrison’s throw from fine leg been better, or Mustard hit at the non-striker’s end.
The most dispiriting let-off came when Harrison over-stepped. As on his debut, he bowled with fire and swing, but undermined it with no-balls. Eleven came in his maiden First-Class innings, five more yesterday. His second of three in the tenth over flattened Horton’s stumps. Stuck on 11 not out for 34 minutes, the opener’s reward for patience is to resume today 31 not out.
The youngster made some amends with lbws either side of Lancashire moving ahead. A sharper-looking Stephen Harmison took a wicket when Gareth Cross played around a full ball, and Procter’s waft gave Stokes one in his first bowl for five weeks.
Steps are being made in the right direction, but too much sloppy cricket is undermining them.