Jaik Mickleburgh and James Foster post record stand
Durham 83 for 1 v Essex 484
Liam Plunkett inspired a Durham fightback at the Riverside - but by stumps on the second day a safe draw was surely still the limit of the dual champions' realistic ambitions against Essex. Durham's hopes of beginning their bid for a hat-trick of county titles with an opening Division One win over their promoted visitors receded significantly on the opening day
Tonight, after Jaik Mickleburgh (174) and James Foster (169) had shared an Essex record stand of 339 for the fifth wicket in a total of 484 and Durham had replied with 83 for 1, the equation favoured the hosts even less. Durham toiled through 108 wicketless overs as Mickleburgh and Foster shut them out on a slow pitch, only for the next four to fall for just six runs with Plunkett suddenly and unexpectedly clicking into gear.
By then, the proximity of the third new ball was merely an indictment of Durham's lack of success. Yet Plunkett - who had drawn a blank for 25 overs - saw off Mickleburgh, Ryan ten Doeschate and Graham Napier among the four wickets to fall in 13 balls.
Mickleburgh chopped on, with the score on 441, and ten Doeschate fell in the same over when Plunkett got one to keep low and beat him on the back foot for an lbw verdict. The first of two brilliant catches by Dale Benkenstein, at backward-point off Callum Thorp, saw off Foster - and when he repeated the trick at slip, Napier gone for a duck, Essex could suddenly do with a handy few runs from their tail to keep the match momentum. In the end they did so, Tim Phillips providing the shot of the day with a switch-hit for six over point off Ian Blackwell - before he was last out.
Mickleburgh, watched today by England selector James Whitaker and known to have impressed some good judges, already had a maiden hundred to his name when he began this morning. But it was Foster who dominated the early scoring on a day of unbroken sunshine as Durham's famed pace attack - significantly minus injured first-choice pair Steve Harmison and Graham Onions - got nowhere for so long.
Foster brought up the Essex 300 with an on-drive for four in Mark Davies' first over after replacing Mitch Claydon. Mickleburgh had two scares, on 114 and 116. First, Kyle Coetzer almost brought off an outstanding one-handed catch from a flick to square-leg off Thorp.
Then Plunkett, the only seamer operating with the wicketkeeper still standing back, thought he had Mickleburgh caught behind with his first delivery but could not persuade umpire Martin Bodenham. Foster had already posted his 14th first-class hundred with a dismissive pick-up sweep shot from slightly out of his crease off Thorp.
The afternoon brought no hint of respite for Durham, who were struggling even for damage limitation by the time Plunkett got through Mickleburgh. The 20-year-old had bagged 13 fours and a six - and even after Foster had gone too, with 19 fours and two sixes from 354 balls, the suspicion was Essex felt they had plenty of runs in the bank.
In 29 overs of evening batting from Durham on a surface which provided a good balance between bat and ball but little speed for either, there was nothing to dramatically alter that impression.
Chris Wright got one to kick off a testing line and length to have lynchpin Michael Di Venuto caught at second slip; then Coetzer and captain Will Smith stayed put for an unbroken half-century stand. Two days into their campaign, Durham can only be even more aware than they were at the outset that there is good reason why no one has managed a hat-trick of titles since Yorkshire managed the feat in 1968.
The county championship is a hard thing to win.