Di Venuto anchors stolid Durham
Durham 270 and 256 for 5 (di Venuto 84) lead Lancashire 265 (Laxman 87, Loye 60, Blackwell 7-85) by 261 runs
Durham spent the third day of this match batting themselves solidly, even stolidly, into a strong position, but some rather puzzling defensive tactics in the final session may prevent them from forcing victory on the final day. A turning pitch, provided it is not a minefield, is a rare pleasure in modern cricket and if there were more like these, spin bowling in England might flourish again. Consequently both sides were playing in rather unfamiliar conditions, but Durham handled them more adeptly - particularly Michael Di Venuto, who restrained his natural attacking instincts to guide his team to a position of strength.
Lancashire began the day still 18 runs behind Durham's first-innings total and, the way the last pair of Tom Lungley and Gary Keedy had been batting, were still capable of taking the lead. For a while they continued with a mixture of some good strokes and a bit of luck, but the latter expired when Keedy was caught at short leg off Ian Blackwell, five runs short. This gave the Durham spinner figures of 7 for 85, the best of his career.
Lancashire made what was to prove serious mistake when Di Venuto, with only a single to his credit, edged a ball from Kyle Hogg low into the slips, where Paul Horton could not hold a difficult chance. As expected, the seamers did not last long, and Keedy came on the bowl the seventh over, being joined at the other end by Stephen Parry for the 12th. Sometimes the ball turned and spun awkwardly, and the wicketkeeper Luke Sutton did not have an easy time during the day, conceding a number of byes and failing to take at least one difficult chance, though he did bag two. The ball was turning square - or so the Lancashire fielders tried to convince the batsmen, as they crowded round their intended victims in a noisy mob. Mark Stoneman, for once scoring faster than Di Venuto, made 33 out of 60 when he was given out to a fine diving catch behind square leg off Keedy, much to his displeasure.
It seemed we were transported to the subcontinent, with two spinners bowling with a marauding pack of fielders making the usual ridiculous farmyard noises of simulated astonishment and disbelief every ball the batsman survived. VVS Laxman, the chirpiest culprit, was put on to bowl his occasional off-breaks, which did quieten things down a little, until on the stroke of lunch Will Smith (1) turned one of his deliveries into the hands of the mobile wicketkeeper and Durham were 65 for 2. Immediately on leaving the field, Laxman was awarded his county cap, though presumably this was for more than just his wicket and vocal contributions.
After lunch Gordon Muchall decided attack was the best method of defence and took the assault to the spinners, using his feet well to drive and pulling anything short. Di Venuto, in contrast, was uncharacteristically restrained, playing an innings far different from his usual upstanding, dominant style. But the vital factor was that he stayed there to anchor the innings, even if it did take him 113 balls to reach his second 50 of the match. He then pushed on a little more quickly, while Muchall seemed to run out of steam before being given out caught at square leg for 40, and walked off another dissatisfied customer.
In these circumstances, and thanks largely once again to Di Venuto, Durham did remarkably well to reached 182 for 3 at tea. In the second over afterwards, however, he pushed a catch to silly point off Keedy and departed for an invaluable 84.
Durham's tactics now became rather puzzling, unless their attitude is now "We have the championship in the bag, so let's make sure we finish the season undefeated." With rain forecast for at least some of the final day, one would have expected them to press on with some urgency towards a declaration; some locals considered they had enough runs to win the match anyway. But instead two normally aggressive batsmen in Dale Benkenstein and Blackwell pushed and prodded their way along at just over two runs an over, until finally Blackwell (25 off 61 balls) pushed at a ball from Parry outside the off stump and was caught at the wicket.
Benkenstein finished the day with a laborious unbeaten 48 off 143 bals. No doubt Durham will consider themselves vindicated if they do win this match on the final day, but their surprisingly unenterprising approach during the final session has improved Lancashire's chances of forcing a draw, result wicket and all.