Stokes gives Durham a slim chance
Lancashire 170 and 56 for 1 need another 144 runs to beat Durham 102 and 267 (Stokes 121)
This is turning into a wonderfully unpredictable cricket match. On the first two days its uncertainty was spiced by the fallibility of the batsmen in conditions which favoured the bowlers; today, however, one's doubts about the outcome were fostered principally by Durham's Ben Stokes, whose first century since his 185 against Lancashire on this ground a year ago has given his side a chance of taking the spoils tomorrow.
However, only the very rash or the very rich are betting any money on it. For, indeed, the game changed again in the last hour as Lancashire's second-wicket pair, Stephen Moore and Karl Brown, took their side confidently to 56 for 1 at the close. Phil Mustard's men need nine wickets for their first Championship win of the season; Glen Chapple's batsmen need 144 runs to reach the same landmark. It should be a morning to savour.
Without Stokes, though, matters would already have been decided in Lancashire's favour. He came to the wicket ten minutes before lunch with his side on 65 for 3, still three runs in arrears. Chapple's attack was boisterously in the ascendancy and the he added the key wicket of Dale Benkenstein with the last ball before the interval.
Lancashire's bowlers came out for the afternoon session knowing that a decent half hour's work would almost certainly decide the match. Stokes and Paul Collingwood strode out to the middle secure in the knowledge that their side's chances largely depended upon their partnership. It was the batsmen who just about produced the better goods in a terrific two hours' cricket.
Chapple's first ball caught Collingwood a painful blow on the hand. It was a portent of the tests to come. But gradually the Durham pair prospered. The 36-year-old Collingwood managed to avoid edging the Lancashire skipper to the four slips and a gully posted to capitalise on any error, while his young partner - Stokes celebrates his 21st birthday on Monday - carefully unfurled an array of shots which has had the England selectors beating a path to Durham's games.
In over two hours the pair added 132 for the fifth wicket, which was only Durham's second century stand of the Championship season. Collingwood played and missed a number of times; he was dropped by Prince at second slip off the impressive Ajmal Shahzad when only 27; he rarely looked at anything like his best. But just as he has done for 18 seasons since making his Durham debut, he shrugged his shoulders and got on with the job of a being a professional cricketer. That this was his first Championship fifty this season was testament to the tough time he has had and the application he displayed.
At the other end Stokes was playing with increasing fluency and taking the fight to the skilful Lancashire seamers. The young Durham batsmen took 91 balls over his first fifty but only a further 57 in reaching a century, an achievement which included 13 boundaries, some of them hit with stunning power on both sides of the wicket.
"Ben played fantastically well and we've given ourselves a chance in the game," Collingwood said. "From where I was standing out in the middle the ball was doing plenty and wickets tend to come in clusters on wickets like this. My innings wasn't pretty - not many are - but it was needed. Ben showed a lot of maturity in showing which shots to play and he had a really good rhythm to his innings."
The measure of the importance of the Collingwood-Stokes stand was made even more apparent after the departure of the senior partner, lbw to a full length ball from Kyle Hogg, just before tea. The bottom five in the Durham order made 14 runs between them but at least stuck around long enough for Stokes get his century and the total reach 267. That was a lead of 199 - unthinkable riches at the end of the morning session.
Most of the damage was done by Simon Kerrigan, who had to wait until the 59th over of the innings for his first bowl of the game but who took 3 for 37 in his short spell. That bag included that of Stokes who was dropped three times during his all-out attack after reaching his century but then holed out to the safe hands of Hogg at backward square leg. Nonetheless, after a year much of which has been lost to injury this most exciting of young batsman can now look forward to a summer in which he can build on this achievement.
The optimism of Durham's supporters increased a little when Paul Horton fell lbw to the first ball of the innings but Brown and Moore saw to it that Graham Onions was unable to capitalise on his early success. Nevertheless, this game will still be in the hazard come the morning.