Nottinghamshire v Durham, Trent Bridge, 1st day July 15, 2009

Ealham strikes after Benkenstein hundred

John Ward at Trent Bridge

Durham 257 for 5 (Benkenstein 105, Smith 87) v Nottinghamshire

At present, Nottinghamshire look like the only team capable of challenging Durham, the reigning champions and current leaders in the county table. Twenty five points adrift, but with two matches in hand, this is a crucial match for Nottinghamshire that could play a major part in deciding the Championship. Both teams have ample reserves, especially in pace bowling: Durham are without Steve Harmison and Graham Onions, Nottinghamshire without Stuart Broad, and they could still afford to leave out Darren Pattinson and the promising Luke Fletcher.

Despite their rich bowling resources, though, the home side had to bow to the Durham batting pair of Will Smith and Dale Benkenstein. They pulled their side out of a degree of early trouble with a fine, if at times dogged, partnership of 193 for the fourth wicket; if they did not score quickly enough, on a pitch not really conducive to fast scoring, they laid what should have been a good foundation for a potential victory. However, their position was spoiled by the events of the last five minutes of play when both fell to Mark Ealham to leave honours even after the first day.

Presumably expecting the ball to swing - which it did to some extent - the home side put Durham in to bat on winning the toss. The early swing was not so excessive as to trouble the batsmen unduly, and for a while Mark Di Venuto and Mark Stoneman played confidently, keeping the score moving by pushing for singles and dispatching loose balls for four, mainly to leg and through the covers. Di Venuto did survive one fortuitous edge between second and third slip to the boundary, off Charlie Shreck.

Ryan Sidebottom bowled well in his opening spell of eight overs for 11 runs, although he does have a habit of bowling just wide enough of a left-hander's off stump for the batsman to shoulder arms. He struck a significant blow by removing Di Venuto, however, who was trapped lbw on his crease for 22. This slowed the scoring rate and the Durham innings lost momentum. Stoneman fell for 24, driving half-heartedly against the steady medium-pace of Andre Adams, who took a smart return catch. Gordon Muchall produced two superb cover drives for four, but he did not last long; at 10 he badly misjudged a drive and was caught at the wicket off the inside edge.

Durham were now struggling at 63 for 3, and with the accurate seam and swing of Adams and Ealham in tandem, runs were hard to come by, especially on a pitch where the ball did not come too readily on to the bat. The batsmen were showing signs of frustration at times, but Smith and Benkenstein, present and past captains, survived until lunch - when the score was 69 for 3 - and after the break the latter at least found the going rather easier. He had started slowly, but now played some impressive strokes, most notably an effortless pull for six off Adams. Ealham, however, continued to bowl with great economy. Benkenstein reached his 50 off 93 balls, while Smith was still struggling in the twenties. Their 100 partnership took them 227 balls.

Not a wicket fell during the afternoon session, and in the first over after tea Smith pulled the off-spinner Samit Patel for four to reach a 50 that took him 159 balls. But he was now catching up Benkenstein, who was rather becalmed and when on 73 almost fell to a brilliant diving attempt at midwicket, the fielder being just unable to hold on to the ball. After leaving the seventies, he was untroubled by the second new ball and progressed steadily to his century, which came with a cover-drive for four off Ealham, from 223 balls. Soon afterwards, though, he played over a ball from Ealham that kept slightly low and was bowled for 105, just before the close of play.

Durham would have been well placed had this pair been able to survive the day, but in the final over the gallant Smith, who rarely looked in his best form, groped outside the off stump to a ball from Ealham that moved away, edging a simple catch to the keeper. So the home side walked off the field in unexpected relief and encouragement, and, as far as can be judged, the first day's play of this significant match ended with honours about even.