Durham 131 and 212 for 8 (Eckersley 54*, Hutton 4-54) trail Northamptonshire 217 and 315 (Proctor 86*, Levi 60, Rossington 52) by 189 runs
When Durham were relegated by the ECB as part of the financial rescue in 2016, figures at the club predicted a five-year journey back to the first division. On another warm, cosy day at Wantage Road they all but surrendered the possibility of making it in three to a Northamptonshire side whose own promotion may be confirmed as early as tomorrow.
One by one, the challengers are thinning out. As Durham slid to near defeat, so the push from Sussex expired via an unexpected loss to Derbyshire. If Northants complete victory and Glamorgan fail to convert their advantage against Leicestershire, then Northants will go up with a game to spare. Should Glamorgan win then Northants will still need only four points against Gloucestershire next week.
It would be an exaggeration to say that they are dominating this match, but neither have they been behind since the half-hour or so of carnage from Adam Rossington on the first day. With Luke Procter to the fore, they added 80 second-innings runs to their overnight 235 for 6 to set a target of 402 and once again Durham's top order collapsed to leave the result an apparent formality.
Durham can claim to be taking small steps forward, with five wins against four last season and a tally of 150 points, 20 up on 2018, with a game to go. There is even something slightly positive to be taken from the haul of 19 batting points. It may be easily the worst among their rivals, but they managed only 16 last summer. And even 11 Steve Smiths would struggle to rack up 400s at the Riverside.
If one eye is on the field, the other must be on the ledgers. The latest accounts, up to the end of September 2018, were lodged with Companies House recently and reveal an overall loss for the year of £1,136,418. This against a profit of £2,227,951 for 2017, when they received £2 million from the ECB for agreeing not to apply to stage Test cricket for the foreseeable future.
Durham certainly know the meaning of the word 'battle'. Whatever the paucity of certain techniques, enough of them showed the guts required to fight their way into a final day. The forecast is good, again, and the new ball is only one over old, but at a time when matches are routinely finishing way ahead of schedule their lower order deserve credit for refusing to succumb to the inevitable.
Ned Eckersley held things together during the gloom of a floodlit extra half hour, when Northants failed in a dubious mission to bounce their way to a breakthrough. Rossington must question his earlier strategy of easing up on Eckersley to focus on removing his tail-end partners. Matt Salisbury has faced 55 balls for his two runs, undaunted even after being struck by Doug Bracewell.
In fact, Durham's best periods bookended an otherwise rather dispiriting day. They struck in each of the first two overs, with the ball seaming away, and a brilliant diving catch by Cameron Steel at backward point removed Brett Hutton just as he was starting to smite profitably. But a last-wicket stand of 51 between Procter and Ben Sanderson shifted the initiative.
Procter completed his fifty from 109 balls and went along at better than a run a ball thereafter. No stroke startled as much as his straight six against Brydon Carse, which prompted a change of ball, though a couple of later Vince-like cover drives by Jack Burnham would have better sated the aesthetes who always converge around the second-hand bookshop during lunch.
They had only victory to anticipate as they ferreted through the shelves of slightly-foxed Swantons and mottled CMJs. In the seventh over, Alex Lees was bowled shouldering arms to Hutton, a poor decision given that the bowler was shaping the ball back in to the left-hander, and a tortured innings by Angus Robson ended with a routine catch to Rossington.
After his sensational stumping on Wednesday, Rossington suffered mixed fortunes this time. He dropped Robson, not that it mattered, and needed treatment after being struck painfully on a finger. Equally, he held an absolute beauty, right-handed at full stretch when Burnham chased a wide one from Procter, who enjoyed a characteristically effective, easily-overlooked day.
But Rossington's effort was trumped by Richard Levi at third slip when Carse slashed at Bracewell. Levi did well to react quickly enough let alone hold on at full stretch. Ominously, though, Carse had kept the nuggety Eckersley company for 17 overs. Salisbury has matched that, and while Northants supporters might have chuntered on their way out at least they have one last home day ahead.