Durham face tough chase after more wickets tumble
Durham 27 for 3 and 186 v Lancashire 84 and 282
Lancashire have a 100 per cent record this season at their temporary headquarters in south Liverpool and it is hard to imagine that too many of the sizeable contingent of Durham supporters here would bet confidently against their maintaining it after two intriguing days here left the contest in the balance.
Trailing by 102 on first innings after a freakish opening day in which both sides were bowled out, Lancashire looked to be heading towards an inevitable defeat when the departure of Gareth Cross just after tea had them just 104 in front at 206 for 6.
But while the last session brought Durham the last five Lancashire wickets, they were not obtained without cost, notably in the shape of an industrious half-century from Luke Procter, who mixed a few edgy boundaries with some more authentic strokes to stretch Lancashire's advantage just enough to cast doubt on the outcome.
A target of 181 to win should not really be a worry to a side with Durham's batting depth but it is amazing what an early setback or two can do to set nerves jangling. In the event, Durham surrendered three wickets for 24, the loss of Michael di Venuto and Gordon Muchall, both leg before to the in-form Kyle Hogg, compounded by the departure of nightwatchman Graham Onions, well caught at gully by Steven Croft off Saj Mahmood's first ball.
They are still favourites, just. But a couple more wickets early on day three will swing the balance back to the home side.
There is plenty at stake. A win will put Lancashire nine points ahead and defeat would certainly be more damaging for Durham, who have played a game more. On the other hand, a win for Durham would stretch the gap between themselves and their opponents at the top of the First Division to 23 points - not enough to attach any guarantees to their quest for a third title in four years but one that would make them feel like favourites, particularly given that Warwickshire, in third place, would be 54 points behind.
The first day, reminiscent of a club game as one batsman after another was easily undone by accurate swing bowling, prompted some to question the quality of this year's championship, given that so far these have been the best two sides.
It is a charge to which Geoff Cook, Durham's director of cricket, would raise an eyebrow, prior to launching a considered counter-argument. But it was knocked back anyway by Peter Moores, Lancashire's former England coach.
"To say that would be grossly unfair," he said. "It was strange to see 20 wickets fall in one day because some of the cricket played this season has been of very high quality. Look at the way Durham batted against Yorkshire, for example, scoring 400-odd in 70-odd overs. They have been solid all season, as we have."
Indeed, Durham have the statistics to back it up, their squad containing eight players with 15 first-class hundreds between them. Cook can chose from 12 batsmen with an average of 36 or higher, which is why you suspect that there will be someone who can master the conditions and subdue Lancashire's zeal enough to get the job done here.
They probably have the strongest hand of bowlers, too, and there was something impressive in the way they stuck to their task yesterday after Lancashire, in complete contrast to day one, had lost only one wicket, somewhat given away with a loose chip to cover by Stephen Moore, in the opening session.
The rest of the day was altogether more productive. Paul Horton, again frustrated to miss out on a good score after starting well, was leg before to Callum Thorp just after lunch and three more wickets followed in the afternoon session. Stephen Harmison, still struggling with his radar in his first two spells, came good in his third as Mark Chilton played across one and Croft was well taken by Thorp at gully.
Onions found a couple of inside edges to get rid of Gareth Cross and Mahmood and bowled Junaid Khan after the debutant had smashed leg-spinner Scott Borthwick over the top for six.
Hogg hit three boundaries before he was caught at short leg off Scott Borthwick but the real thorn in Durham's side was Procter, who followed the trend for chopping on but only after hitting eight fours in his second Championship half-century, which will be a valuable effort indeed if Durham do make a hash of it.