Durham end Lancashire's run to go top
Durham 586 beat Lancashire 313 and 148 by an innings and 125 runs
Geoff Cook, Durham's wily director of cricket, is canny as well as wise and there was never any danger of his sang-froid eluding him even though Durham had ended Lancashire's unbeaten run in emphatic fashion to take a 17-point lead at what is effectively the half-way stage of the County Championship, in matches played if not duration.
Durham completed their third consecutive 24-point win 20 minutes after lunch on the final afternoon, by which point it was clear that Lancashire had given up the ghost. Glen Chapple's side have a game in hand but the demands of the Friends Life Twenty20, for which the Championship now pauses, are likely to put a bigger strain on their small squad than Durham's.
But Cook dismissed talk of the pennant returning to the Riverside, where it resided for two consecutive years before Nottinghamshire claimed it back, even though his team have already amassed 14 centuries and his bowlers 135 wickets.
"We have played on some surfaces that have been testing for the bowlers and the batsmen have revelled in those conditions," he said. "Three innings wins reflects the quality and variety of the bowlers that we have. It is the first time Durham has played two spinners regularly, we have managed to call upon Graham Onions and Stepen Harmison intermittently, Callum Thorp has been terrific and Liam Plunkett played a role at the start.
"This win has given us a bit of a lead but I don't think it has any particular significance. Lancashire still have a game in hand but the pattern of the Championship this season is that everybody seems to be beating everybody else."
And while forecasts of what lies ahead invariably refer to unforeseen twists, the reality is that setbacks tend to occur. Durham have one to deal with now after Ben Stokes, the potentially world class allrounder who appeared to have reached another level with his 185 here, suffered a dislocated finger, complicated by ligament damage, that will keep him out of action for six to eight weeks.
Stokes, who is 20 on Saturday, sustained the damage in the field late on Monday, attempting to catch at ball cut hard at him in the covers. It is a blow for Durham but equally to the player, who had impressed England selector James Whitaker so much with the quality of his batting and bowling here. A call-up to the one-day side was beginning to look a strong possibility.
"Ben has had a superb start to the season. He is a real talent and has made a fantastic improvement in the last month in terms of his mental approach," Cook added. "It is disappointing for him, disappointing for Durham and disappointing for the England selectors if they were thinking of including him. But he still has years and years in front of him.
"It is really sad that Ben's season has been interrupted as it has. He was coming into form with both bat and ball, and it is no coincidence that his batting was improving as his bowling was improving as well.
"That has given him real confidence. He was able to offer something with bat and ball, in some ways that took the pressure off him, and he was making some real contributions. But he is such a natural player that he will pick his game up very quickly when he comes back."
Happily, Paul Collingwood is ready for action in the Twenty20, although he will not discover fully how well his knee has recovered from surgery until he has experienced proper competitive action.
Collingwood's availability is a timely bonus, although another plus for Durham is the size of their squad, especially next to Lancashire's. Where Cook is able to bring in four or five fresh faces for the Twenty20 and rest the same number, Lancashire's small squad offers much less scope for rotation, especially when England's Jimmy Anderson and allrounder Farveez Maharoof, who has been drafted in to Sri Lanka's plans, are taken out.
"We have 17 players and the scary thing is that if we pick up a few injuries we will be under a bit of pressure," the Lancashire coach, Peter Moores, admitted. "I'd like more cover, I'd like an overseas player and we are looking at what can be done in that regard. But it has been clear that we have a cashflow problem."
Those on the field yesterday, for the first time this season, seemed to be a little lacking in fight, as if the task of batting through, three down and still 204 behind overnight, looked too much to them.
Gary Keedy, the nightwatchman, had the right attitude, surviving for 67 minutes on the final morning before temptation got the better of him and he was bowled trying to sweep Ian Blackwell, his fellow left-arm spinner.
Mark Chilton, his overnight partner, had already gone, caught behind trying to withdraw his bat when Mitch Claydon found some extra bounce. But it was what came after Keedy that will have disappointed Moores.
Steven Croft was beaten by a fast, full delivery from Onions that hit him on pad, but Gareth Cross was trying to cut Blackwell and Tom Smith was caught at slip sweeping. Both dismissals would have struck Moores as avoidable. Five wickets had gone for 24 and, eight down at lunch and still 140 behind, survival was off the agenda.
Soon afterwards, Chapple's uppercut off a short ball from Claydon dropped into the hands of deep backward point and Blackwell picked up his fourth wicket by bowling Kyle Hogg.
"I'd like to have seen us bat for longer," Moores said, stating the obvious. "It was a pitch where there was always a ball there for you, that would catch you out because it bounced a bit more or kept low, but it was a pitch where if you got in you could be difficult to get out, as Ben Stokes and Dale Benkenstein proved in that excellent partnership. But sometimes you have to accept that a team has played better than you over the four days."
Beaten captain Chapple echoed those words. "We've got to take it on the chin, we were outplayed. We still competed, the effort was superb throughout, but the quality of our bowling wasn't as good as it has been, mine included. It's one performance, one loss, that's all. We're still confident because we've had a fantastic start to the year and you're not going to go through a season without losing a game."
He praised Durham, but with a caveat. "They're just playing really good cricket, but there are a lot of squads out there who are strong. Things can change quickly. Their batsmen are hot at the moment. They're making the right decisions, they're timing the ball. But that can change. I wouldn't write anybody off."