Lancashire v Durham, Liverpool, 1st day June 27, 2011

Benkenstein shows up other batsmen

Jon Culley at Aigburth

Lancashire 84 and 4 for 0 v Durham 186

When wickets tumble in the way they did here as the top two in the County Championship locked horns, questions tend to be asked first about the pitch and then about the quality of the batting, the common assumption being that if one is blameless then the other surely cannot be.

The possibility that the bowlers did their job rather well is generally the last consideration. Time, then, to give credit where it is due.

Sure, there was a generous covering of grass on the pitch and perhaps a bit of residual dampness to help the seam bite. With the ball swinging, particularly during a warm and muggy morning, batting was therefore not without hazards and yes, some of the shots played probably lacked something in terms of judgment or execution.

An unbeaten 83 from Dale Benkenstein later in the day illustrated what was possible with the right degree of application but to suggest that injudicious batting and helpful conditions were the only factors influencing the day's events would be to do the likes of Callum Thorp and Saj Mahmood a considerable disservice.

Indeed, pitch liaison officer Peter Walker wasted little time in declaring the wicket prepared to be an innocent party, stopping by the press tent at lunch and tea to report that, as far as he was concerned, its condition was more than satisfactory. "There's not a mark on it," he said, describing the clatter of wickets as "extraordinary."

"The groundsman has produced a very good pitch, as good as I have seen. You wouldn't think you were watching the two best sides in the Championship."

Thorp bowled splendidly, repeatedly finding just the right line and length to draw batsmen into playing at deliveries outside off stump, which then swung away. He had three of them caught behind, another two in the slips.

The 36-year-old medium-pacer seems to have been perpetually an unsung figure in Durham's attack, quietly doing his job while Stephen Harmison, Liam Plunkett or, lately, Graham Onions, have stolen the headlines. Steady dependability has been his stock in trade and it is to his credit that he has been picked here ahead of Plunkett, Mitch Claydon and the early-season sensation, Ruel Brathwaite.

Yet he has had his moments, notably when taking 7 for 88 as Durham beat Kent in Canterbury to clinch their first Championship title in 2008. In a match that may have an important bearing on whether Durham win their third title this summer, this was another.

Onions, who continues to build a case for an England recall, drew first blood, dismissing Paul Horton leg before with his third ball. Then Thorp struck twice in three overs, wicketkeeper Phil Mustard pouching catches as Karl Brown and Mark Chilton perished cheaply. Onions, 1 for 13 off seven overs at that stage, gave way to Harmison, who could not summon the same control, conceding five wides twice in his opening over.

For a while, Stephen Moore, confidence boosted by his century in Lancashire's fine win over Nottinghamshire, battled to hold things together. But wickets continued to fall at the other end, Steven Croft, with another tentative push, gave Thorp his third success before taking a breather with three for 12 from nine overs.

Moore hooked a Harmison bouncer for six but Luke Procter was leg before only half-forward to Dale Benkenstein, who had come on as fourth seamer with Paul Collingwood unable to bowl and Ben Stokes still missing following his finger dislocation. Then Harmison, in another eventful over, accounted for Moore, who followed a widish delivery to give Mustard his fourth catch.

From six down for 71 at lunch, Lancashire survived only five overs and two balls of the afternoon session. Thorp was helped by a couple of sharp slip catches from Paul Collingwood and Michael di Venuto as he claimed his fourth and fifth wickets, Onions took his second, getting under the ball as Mahmood's attempted pull soared into the air, and then Thorp disturbed Kyle Hogg's stumps to complete his best return since his seven against Kent.

Lancashire had not been bowled out so cheaply since Glamorgan dismissed them for 51 on this ground in 1997 but Durham seemed likely to fare little better, losing their first six wickets for 61 as Hogg and Mahmood continued where they had left off at Trent Bridge last week, where they shared 18 wickets in Lancashire's impressive win over Nottinghamshire.

Hogg had both openers leg before with only eight runs on the board and Mahmood, after profiting from Collingwood's miscued pull to mid-on, produced two fine, full-length balls to bowl Ian Blackwell and trap Mustard in front. In the midst of their successes, Junaid Khan, the Pakistan left-arm quick making his Lancashire debut, took his maiden wicket, ending Gordon Muchall's progress via an edge to the keeper with a little late swing.

After Luke Procter had accounted for Scott Borthwick via a catch squirted to first slip, Lancashire were into the tail but the strength of Durham's case as Championship contenders lies in the range of batsmen capable of digging them out of a difficult spot.

This time, it was Benkenstein who stepped up to the plate. The wily allrounder has both the technique and the temperament to cope with the challenge he faced as the ball continued to swing and, where others had either made an unwise choice of stroke or perhaps just been impatient under pressure, grafted his way to 83 in almost three hours of diligent application that ended only when he ran out of partners.