Stokes relishes spin challenge to hold up Hampshire

Durham 242 for 7 (Clark 58, Stokes 50, Richardson 50*) trail Hampshire 411 (Dawson 62) by 169 runs

It seems fair to wonder exactly why Ben Stokes is playing for Durham in this match, given the allrounder's crown jewel status in English cricket. His colleague Mark Wood is not, and Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow - two other allrounders who will be on the complete 84-day, dual-format tour of the subcontinent from a week Thursday through to December 21 - were withdrawn from their (vital) fixtures.

Durham, safe in Division One after beating Surrey last week, described this trip as "the jaunt to the south coast" when announcing their squad. Was this why Stokes had come? For a jaunt and a drink, to see off his mates Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick as they stayed south? Or to catch up with his England mates Vincey, Daws and Toppers (who, along with Hampshire's performance analyst Joe Maiden, did a stint as a sub fielder)?

Stokes put those thoughts to bed as he flung himself about in the field, with that very unique brand of aggressive abandon, or when he had bowled 10 typically full-blooded overs by early afternoon on day one. The man, of course, does nothing by half and this opened the original can of worms: what if this increasingly injury-prone jewel injured himself here, playing a game which seemed to hold little for him?

But when Stoneman's penultimate innings for Durham ended with a loss of patience and a smack to midwicket off Liam Dawson - who is bowling with a troublesome finger - to leave Durham 49 for 3, and 362 behind, Stokes was presented with an opportunity to make this a very worthwhile jaunt south indeed. This is not Chennai or Chittagong, but the sandy pitch was spitting, the spinners were bedding in, and Durham needed digging out of a hole; by then, Keaton Jennings had shouldered arms to Gareth Berg's first ball, and Borthwick had driven loosely to second slip. Stokes, the great competitor, bristled.

Stokes's 50 was chiselled out across 41 overs, 32 of them against the spin of Dawson, Mason Crane and Will Smith. There were just three boundaries, two of them in three Crane balls - a short-arm job through mid-on, then a dismissive flick through midwicket; otherwise, it was about occupation and accumulation to douse the spinners and hold up Hampshire's charge for survival. Against a softening ball, and with men around the bat, Stokes never looked totally fluent, but he was unusually happy to soak up deliveries, defending vigilantly, both forward and back. Causes for alarm were as minimal as he could have hoped.

Stokes shared a careful 85 with Graham Clark, who made his second Championship fifty an innings after his first, and in doing so provided hope for Durham fans fearing the post-Stoneman and Borthwick world, as well as lending his brother, Lancashire's Jordan, a hand in the relegation battle. Clark got after Crane, whose radar took some time to warm up, and was particularly strong through square leg, as well as being alert to Stokes's unusually keen eye for a run; it was impressive to see them dash through for two when Tom Alsop parried brilliantly at point. Eventually, Clark nicked Dawson behind, and Crane found a perfect legbreak to draw Paul Collingwood's edge and it seemed Hampshire's primacy had been restored.

Stokes, though, was one of only two wickets to fall in the final session. After 22 straight overs of self-moderation against spin, he tried a controlled pull in Brad Wheal's first over back, got a top edge and was caught at deep square-leg. Wheal also accounted for Ryan Pringle - who turned straight to backward square - in the next over of a fine spell of 4-2-2-2.

"Stokes and Clark set the tone," said Michael Richardson, with whom Stokes shared 46. "When the ball was soft, they charged on, knuckled down and got us back into the game. Stokesy gives the impression that everything happens at 100mph, but he cares a lot about his cricket. This was a great example of him doing whatever he needs to get the job done. It doesn't take too much for him to hold back, he just wants to get big scores."

From there, Richardson - who cut the spinners when they dropped short - led the resistance in Stokes and Clark's spirit, reaching a 111-ball 50 shortly before stumps, by which point he had shared 56 with Brydon Carse, to leave Durham 169 behind.

All of which would have been a frustration from where Hampshire found themselves as Stokes wandered to the crease. First thing, they had lost their last four wickets for 41, but not before Dawson had completed a punchy fifty, and a fifth batting point had been secured. Two of Graham Onions' three wickets - Dawson lbw and Crane bowled - had stayed low, before last man Lewis McManus holed out slogging Borthwick.

Hampshire remain well in front, but, after Stokes' and Durham's dig in, they know three quick wickets are of the essence: a fine final two days await.