Durham v Essex, Chester-le-Street, 1st day April 15, 2010

Jaik Mickleburgh holds up defending champions

Essex 263 for 4 v Durham

Durham's first day in pursuit of a third successive County Championship title did not go precisely to plan as Jaik Mickleburgh's courageous maiden first-class century built a commanding position for Essex at the Riverside.

Shorn of their quickest bowler Steve Harmison due to a back injury, Durham's steadier seamers acquitted themselves well in reducing Essex to 102 for 4 in ideal bowling conditions, claiming the prize scalp of Alastair Cook in the process. But the champions lost their way alarmingly from mid-afternoon, as 20-year-old Mickleburgh (103 not out) and James Foster (66no) joined in an unbroken 161-run stand in 54 overs.

Durham captain Will Smith won the toss and unsurprisingly asked the visitors to bat in gloomy conditions that could scarcely have been further removed from their pink-ball trial in Abu Dhabi earlier this month. The traditional red Dukes certainly provided a stern challenge for Cook, who was only granted ECB permission to play in this match yesterday due to a shortage of available Essex batsmen.

In his first innings since leading England to a series whitewash in Bangladesh, the left-hander was forced to withstand a probing 11-over opening spell of subtle in-swing from Callum Thorp. Cook's opening partner Billy Godleman was the first to succumb 10 balls into the day, struck on his front pad by a Thorp delivery going across him.

The runs dried up, and the second-wicket pair could not find a boundary for the next 12 overs, until John Maunders broke the shackles with a clipped four off his hips in the 16th. But the stocky left-hander survived only three more deliveries before going lbw to Thorp in almost identical fashion to Godleman.

Mickleburgh almost followed him back in swift order, but he narrowly escaped being run out when sent back to the non-striker's end by Cook. Cook battled through consecutive near misses by Mark Davies, playing loosely away from his body before edging fractionally short of Michael Di Venuto at first slip.

The arrival of Durham's change bowlers briefly allowed Cook to free his arms, producing two sweet drives off Liam Plunkett to take his score to 37 at lunch. Just as Mickleburgh began to contribute to a burgeoning partnership of 60, Cook nicked a Claydon outswinger to second slip Di Venuto, who held an excellent catch low down.

Mark Pettini lasted only 20 balls before handing Thorp a third wicket by edging a loose drive to Di Venuto. With Cook gone, Essex could conceivably have folded, but they were aided by a distinctly off-colour display from Plunkett midway through the afternoon.

Plunkett strayed to leg far too often, allowing Foster to whip him for an emphatic six into the members' stand. Mickleburgh visually grew in confidence in Foster's company, and moved to a battling fifty from 131 balls just prior to tea, which Essex took at a healthier 167 for 4.

Foster returned after the resumption with a typically bold approach, playing two sumptuous straight drives off Thorp and several authoritative lofted strokes off Ian Blackwell's left-arm spin. Plunkett just fell short in his attempt to pull off a stunning catch in the gully, and salt was rubbed into Durham's wounds when Foster flashed through a vacant slip to bring up the century partnership.

But the former England wicketkeeper's half-century, which arrived soon after, was richly deserved in the circumstances. Mickleburgh required attention from the physio in the 85th over, but he picked himself up to see off the second new ball and gradually work his way to his deserved hundred, which spanned 222 balls.

Foster had no intention of slowing down, hooking a Ben Stokes half-tracker for six three overs before stumps. His innings lasted 174 balls, featuring seven fours and a six.