Kabir Ali ensures evenly poised match
Worcestershire 193 (Noffke 50, Plunkett 6-63) and 0 for 0 trail Durham 194 (Mustard 63, Kabir ALi 6-68) by 1 run
It may be a match between the current top and bottom teams of the championship, Division One, but it could turn out to be one of the most exciting matches of the season. Worcestershire's pace bowler Kabir Ali, considered unworthy of the England Test squad or even of the Lions team, continued his demolition job on the Durham batting line-up, with more than adequate help from Matt Mason, so that when play ended early due to rain with both teams having completed an innings, the home side led by a single run.
Kyle Coetzer and Dale Benkenstein were at the crease as Durham resumed on their overnight score of 40 for 3. As Worcestershire had found 24 hours earlier, the struggle for survival, even for top-class batsmen, in humid conditions at Riverside is not easy. Kabir and Mason found enough movement in the air to have both batsmen defending for dear life or sighing in silent relief as they were beaten by balls that also beat the edges of their bats. The first run of the day only came in the fifth over, and the first boundary was an involuntary edge by Coetzer just past the slips off Kabir.
Then, for a brief period, the runs started to flow. Perhaps the batsmen relaxed a little too soon, as the danger was not over. With the score at 56, Kabir produced a superb swinging delivery that bamboozled Benkenstein and had him edging a catch to the keeper for 25. Within minutes Mason had turned Ian Blackwell around with a fine ball of his own to bowl him for a single, and then Coetzer played a ball from Kabir on to his stumps to depart for 30. In each instance it was the full-length swinging delivery that did the trick, and Durham were reeling at 59 for 5.
With the specialists gone, it was left to Phil Mustard and Liam Plunkett to lead the fightback. Plunkett rightly considers himself as a potential allrounder nowadays perhaps of the quality of Stuart Broad, and he played some handsome strokes, choosing his aggressive shots wisely as the sun shone more strongly and the conditions began to ease. Mustard gave him his head and began very slowly, and the next hour or two showed he knew what he was about. The hundred came up in the 36th over, but soon afterwards Plunkett, finally misjudging a ball from Mason outside his off stump, edged a low catch to slip and departed for 29.
Callum Thorp, with a few good strokes in his 13, lent Mustard support until Kabir brought a ball back sharply off the pitch to trap him lbw - the first such decision of the match - for 13. Matthew Claydon played a rather weak shot against Kabir to be caught at the wicket, and with Durham at 171 for 9 Worcestershire must have favoured their chances of picking up a first-innings lead for the first time this season. But Mustard was still there, and he had increased his strokeplay enough to reach 50 off 82 balls. At the other end Mark Davies, despite a tendency to play the ball from square leg, stayed in there, and actually had the honour of seizing the lead for his team with a rather agricultural swat past mid-on for four. Having done that job, he played on to Chris Whelan and the innings was over with a lead of just one run. Kabir, whose bowling would have done the national side credit, finished with six good wickets for 68 runs, while Mason gave him superb support with three wickets. Were Simon Jones fit and firing, Worcestershire would indeed be a team to fear in conditions like these. If they can play a fit team and find more self-belief, they should yet prove worthy of the top division this season.
By now the sun had gone and a nearby storm was advertising its intentions freely, so the umpires decided to take the players off the field and have an early tea after one uneventful ball in Worcestershire's second innings. Although there was only a brief light shower and the light improved, play did not start after tea, and it was officially announced that play had been suspended for reasons of safety. The storm passed, but a drizzle did not, and the game will resume on the third day almost as evenly balanced as is possible. The fast bowlers have dominated the match and their performances will hold the key to the eventual result - together with the weather conditions.