Durham v Lancashire, Chester-le-Street, 3rd day May 31, 2011

Stokes builds on his growing reputation

Jon Culley at Chester-le-Street

Lancashire 313 and 69 for 3 v Durham 586

Had his day not ended with a trip to hospital for treatment to a dislocated finger, it would have been a particularly good one for Ben Stokes, the Durham tyro whose name will be on everybody's lips, sooner or later.

His team had finished in a commanding position against so-far unbeaten Lancashire and he had proved he can bat not only very well but for a very long time to put them there. His career-best 185, though not without its moments of good luck, had been notable for its air of developing maturity and its five-and-a-half hour span. It was his third Championship century this season and the fifth of his career. Not bad at all for a young man who - until Saturday, at least - is still a teenager.

He hurt himself dropping a ball driven hard to cover by Paul Horton, who was on 31 at the time and had he not been able to add only three to his score might later have reflected on the irony of the moment. Stokes had given three chances during his marathon innings - of varying degrees of difficulty but chances nonetheless - all of which had been missed by Horton at slip.

Stokes's Championship batting average for this season stands at 55.36, an impressive statistic among many attached to Durham at present. Good numbers do not necessarily equate to titles, yet halfway through a season in which the champions of 2008 and 2009 appear to have good prospects of winning a third title in four years, Durham's stack up.

Their batting averages, for example, show five players with 539 runs or more in the competition, with a sixth on 456. Given that the merit mark for a summer is 1,000 - and given that there are another eight matches to come - they make ominous reading.

Dale Benkenstein already needs only 145 more to reach the milestone for the fifth time in his career. Stokes has the next highest aggregate on 609. In this match, they have scored 322 between, having shared a huge and probably match-winning stand of 331 that surpassed one Durham record and fell only just short of another.

It was the biggest partnership for any Durham wicket against any opposition in the Championship, bettering that set by Benkenstein and Ottis Gibson, who put on 315 for the seventh wicket against Yorkshire at Headingley in 2006. One more boundary and it would have replaced the 334 by Stewart Hutton and Mike Roseberry against Oxford University in 1996 as Durham's highest partnership in first-class cricket.

It was more than enough to leave Lancashire in serious danger of surrendering the First Division's only unbeaten record. They trailed by 273 on first innings and have lost three wickets in reducing the deficit by 69.

But back to Stokes. What makes him so exciting is that he remains a free spirit, his natural aggression spurring him on when there is a moment to be grasped, as he demonstrated at the Rose Bowl in April when he hit the first five balls of an over for six against Hampshire's Liam Dawson.

There was more of that in evidence here as he was taken suddenly with the idea of hitting the ball over the pavilion, which is no mean feat given its height - 11 rows of seats, an eight-foot wall, the dressing rooms, the executive boxes and a fairly tall roof - and one which had been taken on successfully only once before, apparently, by Kevin Pietersen.

So it probably says all that needs to be said about the power and timing that underpins his batting that Stokes, with two mighty sweeps against Steven Croft's off breaks, did it twice. He was bowled attempting a third but could hardly be criticised for following his instincts.

What should be noted was that this time the fireworks came only at the end. Otherwise, it had been an innings that demonstrated that he is learning that before seizing the moment it is important to know when is the right moment. With such a wise old pro as Benkenstein at the other end, the maturing process probably advanced quite measurably during this innings.

Benkenstein had gone a little before Stokes, edging a decent ball from Luke Procter that wicket-keeper Gareth Cross moved sharply to take, setting off what in relative terms was a clatter of wickets. Ian Blackwell was bowled by a ball from Kyle Hogg that nipped back and kept low before Scott Borthwick wasted what might have been an opportunity to enhance his standing as a batsman by chasing a wide ball from Glen Chapple and giving a catch to slip that Horton, this time, managed to hold.

From 425 for 5, Durham were 485 for 7, which was still a good lead but gave Lancashire, who were 172 behind at that moment, a little more encouragement. However, a breezy 61 off 63 balls from Phil Mustard, enhanced by some spirited biffing from Callum Thorp and Mitch Claydon, added more than 100 to the deficit.

It was just Lancashire's luck that Graham Onions then bowled his best spell of the match, trapping Stephen Moore with a ball that beat him for pace and allowing Horton to add only three to his score when dropped before he was caught behind off a bottom edge. In between, Thorp nipped one back to have Karl Brown leg before. Lancashire will do well to survive on the final day.