Smith returns to form with a century
Durham 348 for 3 v Warwickshire
Batting hasn't been much fun at Edgbaston this year but, after several weeks of famine, it was time for a feast. The day after Warwickshire lost their appeal for producing a poor pitch in the match against Worcestershire, they produced a surface so benign that it might have been designed to nurse an ailing batsman back to health. Which is, pretty much, exactly what it did.
The chief beneficiary of the conditions was Will Smith. The leap of delight the 28-year-old gave upon reaching his century spoke volumes: this was his first three-figure score since September 2009 and, after the travails of last year, his joy was understandable.
Smith endured a testing 2010. Despite leading Durham to the Championship title in 2009, he was sacked just four games into the new campaign after the side suffered their first loss in 21 matches. His own form also fell away - he averaged just 16 after seven innings - and, after May 10, he didn't appear in the Championship side for the rest of the season. His future in the game was beginning to look uncertain.
Here, however, he has looked utterly secure. Not only has he not given a chance, he's barely played and missed despite batting all day. His method was simple: he left well, scarcely played a front foot stroke until after he had passed his century and waited for the short ball which he put away ruthlessly. His pulls, cuts and back-foot drives were particularly impressive.
In partnership with Dale Benkenstein, Smith has so far added 221 for the fourth-wicket - a new Durham record for any wicket against Warwickshire - and ensured the visitors have made full use of winning an overly important toss.
Afterwards, Smith admitted he had feared his career might have been over last year. "[Last year] was tough for various reasons," Smith said. "Primarily, I need to be a batsman and I need to score runs. I wasn't doing that and that was only ever going to be my fault. Batsmen are judged on hundreds; they are our currency. Until today, I was the only one in the top seven not to have scored a hundred. I had to rectify that.
"Yes, I thought about chucking it away. But you try and push those thoughts out of your mind. I took some time off up until Christmas and just thought about how much the game means to me. I re-found that this winter. I'm doing something that millions of other people would like to do and I thank my lucky stars for that."
Without meaning to detract from Smith's efforts, those 'lucky stars' are probably relevant. Had Mark Stoneman not broken his hand in the first game of the season, it is quite possible that Smith might, even now, be languishing in the seconds. Now, however, he has taken his chance on a heaven-sent wicket and will surely prove hard to displace.
The rest of the Durham top-order will feel they missed out. Michael Di Venuto fell to a thin edge as he tried to withdraw the bat, Gordon Muchall pushed hard at one on off stump and edged to slip, while Ben Stokes' promising innings was curtailed when he obligingly clipped a half-volley straight to mid-wicket. It could not have been what Geoff Miller, the on-looking National Selector, was hoping to see.
In Benkenstein, however, Smith found a similarly determined ally. Both men were admirably disciplined and happy to wait on the back foot and pick off the runs when the opportunity arose. Warwickshire, however, might reflect that they didn't make them wait as long as they should have done for those run-scoring opportunities. On a slow, flat wicket, the bowlers failed to maintain a tight enough line or length to create pressure and, dropping short frequently, were punished with merciless efficiency. They also donated 22 runs from no-balls. Boyd Rankin, conceding more than five an over and overstepping seven times, was the worst offender.
Perhaps Warwickshire could take some pleasure amid the pain. The last two games at Edgbaston have been played on substandard wickets, culminating in the ECB penalising Warwickshire eight points after a panel deemed the pitch for the match against Worcestershire to be poor.
Part of Warwickshire's defence - that there was nothing more they could have done to produce a good wicket - offered more questions than answers. It suggested that Warwickshire were now so at the mercy of the conditions, that pitch-production had become something of a lottery: surely not an acceptable state for a Test ground? On this occasion they have taken no chances: on the first day, at least, batting here has been easy.
In truth, however, this is not a good pitch. It is horribly sluggish, soaking up all pace and allowing batsmen to sit on the back foot and wait for the ball to sit up. After several games in which conditions at Edgbaston have favoured bowlers too much, the balance has now titled too far in the other direction. Rightly or wrongly, however, no-one at the ECB seems to mind if the batsman is on top. Inevitably, Mike Denness, the ECB Pitch Liaison Officer in attendance, passed the pitch as fine.