Spinners strike to give Surrey the upper hand
Durham 156 for 2 (Stoneman 57, Jennings 53) trail Surrey 457 (Stokes 4-117) by 301 runs
Much like the weather that started and finished with a blanket of cloud but burst, ever so briefly, into blue skies and sunshine, there was an isolated moment on the second afternoon at the Kia Oval when the prevailing conditions looked as though they were about to give way to something more amenable for this contest's hard-worked bowlers.
Sure enough, the capture of two wickets in as many overs by Surrey's spinners, Gareth Batty and Zafar Ansari, meant that, by the time an early close was confirmed shortly before 6pm, Durham's otherwise sturdy reply to a hefty first innings of 457 had been undermined by the knowledge of the trials that might yet be in store as this match works towards its conclusion.
At stumps Durham had reached 156 for 2, thanks to half-centuries from both openers, Mark Stoneman and Keaton Jennings, and a confident pair of opening gambits from Scott Borthwick, who reached stumps unbeaten on 20, and the teenager Jack Burnham, who displayed both technique and confidence in taking on Ansari with a brace of straight sixes. The first nearly took out a spectator in the pavilion; the second came right on the stroke of tea, a delicate pop back over the bowler's head, as if to show the way to the dressing room.
However, it was the nine-ball hiatus that bridged the two partnerships that could prove to be the key to the outcome of this contest. After a lively start to the day from Surrey's lower-order, who added 86 runs to their overnight 371 for 7, Stoneman and Jennings negotiated Surrey's seamers with aplomb before becoming unstuck as the slow men twirled into the game.
First to go was Jennings for 53, who sized up a pre-meditated sweep but was beaten all ends up before swishing his bat in fury over his shattered stumps. Then, in the very next over, Stoneman propped half-forward to be adjudged lbw to Batty for 57, the end of another fine innings in which he had rattled along at not far shy of a run a ball without ever really seeming to be in a hurry.
On a curious looking wicket which has been shaved at both ends in a bid to encourage some turn, Surrey's spinners will expect to come into their own in the second half of the game, and Ansari in particular is eager to make up for lost time after his horrible thumb injury last season.
Ansari may have missed England's winter campaigns in the UAE and South Africa, but with the national selector James Whitaker and Peter Such, the ECB's spin coach, both watching his efforts on Monday, he'll be encouraged that he remains high in their thoughts for the summer campaigns against Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Batty, meanwhile, had a no-less prominent part to play with the bat, as his 40 from 81 balls helped to secure Surrey's full haul of batting points and apply a glossier finish to an innings that looked to have lost its way a touch in the latter stages of the first day.
With Ben Foakes setting the early agenda with a brace of boundaries in Chris Rushworth's first over of the day, Surrey were eventually prised out by the hard-working Ben Stokes, who finished with figures of 4 for 117 in a 33.4-over spell that was a world away from his short-but-sharp efforts at the World T20 last month.
After Brydon Carse had claimed his third of the innings to remove Foakes for 38, Stokes extracted the final two scalps - Surrey's debutant seamer Mathew Pillans was well caught by Borthwick at second slip for a well-compiled 15 that had included an uppercut off the eyebrows for four, before Batty - giving himself room to have a mow with the No.11 Matt Dunn for company - lost his middle and leg stumps soon after swiping a Stokes bouncer over backward square for the only six of the innings.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets @miller_cricket