Stokes century grabs the attention
Durham 279 for 3 v Lancashire 313
James Whitaker, the England selector, found himself understandably distracted by goings-on at Cardiff as Durham advanced steadily towards parity in the clash of second and first in the Division One table but for a while it seemed that each time he looked away from the television screen it was to see Ben Stokes rocking on to the back foot to crash another four to the cover boundary.
He could not fail to be impressed. The young allrounder, who will be 20 on Saturday, confirmed not only the immense power with which he can strike a cricket ball but his growing maturity as a batsman. The pitch here is flattening out nicely but Lancashire have not made the start they have to this season without being able to bowl well in all conditions and promotion to No. 4 in the batting order this season has given Stokes new responsibility. When he arrived at the crease at 90 for 2, Durham were still 223 behind.
So when he raised his bat to acknowledge the applause of spectators and his colleagues on the Durham balcony, Stokes would have been pleased not only to have completed his third Championship century of the season with his 13th boundary but with his shot selection, too, and the measured pace at which he had built the innings. He is naturally an aggressive batsman but took care to limit his mistakes here, taking 94 balls to make his first 50 and then accelerating gradually.
As the clock ticked down on the day's overs allocation, trimmed by 25 after a morning lost to rain was followed by a brief stoppage mid-afternoon for bad light, he might have been tempted to rush things, but resisted. In the event, the umpires allowed an extra over and Stokes reached three figures with a four through extra cover off the last ball of the day, although the ball from Steven Croft, bowling off spin, deserved to be given the treatment.
The only chance he gave came when he had made 84, on which he edged a ball from Gary Keedy that Paul Horton, diving to his left at slip, could not hold on to. Had it stuck it would have been a good catch.
Benkenstein, whose first 50 coincidentally took 94 balls also, was as much advisor as partner as the two added 185 (so far) for the fourth wicket, the highest for any wicket for Durham against Lancashire. At nearly 37, the former captain is not far off twice Stokes's age and there are few cannier batsmen on the English domestic circuit. He resumes on 67.
Between them, they made sure that a mid-afternoon stumble did not damage Durham's innings too severely. It came following the stoppage for bad light soon after three o'clock, at which point they were 86 for 1.
Gordon Muchall, who rode his luck early on after play began at 1.40pm, had settled down and he and Will Smith appeared to be well in control when the umpires decided the dark clouds overhead might be a problem. They were back within eight minutes but the batsmen's concentration had clearly suffered for the interruption.
Smith, who looked to be carrying the confidence drawn from his first century since 2009 at Edgbaston last week, fell for 30 when he stretched into a drive against a wide ball from Luke Procter and edged to wicketkeeper Gareth Cross. It was a disappointing end, given that he had played some pleasing shots. Nonetheless, after the torrid time he went through last season, when he lost the captaincy and his place in the team in quick order, there had been just enough to feel he may have found a sustainable return to form.
Within six more balls, however, alarm bells sounded as Muchall was lbw when Tom Smith brought one back off the seam, having just completed his half-century. The opener had led something of a charmed life earlier, a sizeable proportion of his nine boundaries going either wide of or through the slip cordon.
Their partnership had added 84 following the third-over dismissal of Michael di Venuto, who tried to leave a ball from Glen Chapple only for the ball to brush the glove en route into the hands of wicketkeeper Gareth Cross.
The double breakthrough did not lift Lancashire's spirits for long, however. A sizeable lead will not be easily obtained but Durham bat deep and will feel they are in a good position.