Sussex 60 for 3 trail Durham 245 (Stoneman 96, Anyon 4-87) by 185 runs
It is hard to think now that Durham were a popular choice as relegation candidates before the season began and at a disadvantage from the outset, having been docked two-and-a-half points for breaching the terms of the salary cap. Now it would surprise many of their doubters if they failed to win the title.
With a game in hand on Yorkshire, whom they trailed by five-and-a-half points after their victory at Scarborough last week, they are favourites with the bookmakers, although the final few weeks threaten to be anything but straightforward. This is the first of two matches against Sussex, who themselves are not out of the running yet, despite their oddly conservative performance against Warwickshire last week. Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, who provide their other opponents, are both battling for survival.
Durham missed out on a second batting point here, which may or may not prove costly during the next three and a half weeks, when Graham Onions was persuaded by James Anyon bowling three short balls in a row to attempt a pull and paid the price, the ball looping to Will Beer at midwicket.
It was a rash stroke, yet if 245 seemed a little below par - which it is, on the basis that the average first-innings score here this season has been 281 - it was worth bearing in mind that Durham had batted first in all six home matches before this one and always had a first-innings lead.
They have some handicaps in this match. Ben Stokes, who has been in outstanding form with bat and ball, is on England duty, while Mark Wood and James Harrison have joined Callum Thorp among those injured. They have had to recall Mitch Claydon, who has already agreed to join Kent next season, from his loan spell at Canterbury in order to reinforce their seam attack.
It is just as well that Onions, missing for the last three weeks, has recovered from his broken finger. He took a little time to find his rhythm, understandably, but still managed to have Chris Nash caught at slip and trap Michael Yardy leg-before and Sussex may feel they might have been in much worse shape than 60 for 3 overnight. They also lost Joe Gatting, bowled by Claydon, while Luke Wells was dropped behind the stumps before he had scored as Chris Rushworth delivered a testing spell from the Lumley End.
Not for the first time this year, a solid chunk of Durham's total was supplied by Mark Stoneman, who has a chance to top 1000 first-class runs in a season for the first time, which would be appropriate reward for a year that has seen the elegant opener make a real breakthrough.
It has been a long time coming, but Durham always knew, somehow, that their patience with Stoneman would be worth it in the end. They must be pretty pleased now that they didn't give up during the barren four years between his first Championship century, in his debut season in 2007, and his second, or the 15 months that came and went between his second and his third.
His slow progress was a surprise, given the team-mates he has had as close-hand role models, among them Michael di Venuto, Dale Benkenstein, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ian Blackwell. Sometimes, though, to play in heavyweight company can be an inhibiting factor and this seems to have been the case with Stoneman, now 26, who has acquired seniority of a kind after the retirements of Di Venuto and Blackwell and with Benkenstein sidelined by long-term injury.
He did not start this season especially well. In his first five innings, he made it into double figures only once, but then came a second-innings hundred against Yorkshire in April, since when he has found a remarkably consistent level, passing fifty nine times in 18 innings.
He has had three hundreds - two against Yorkshire, after his 122 at Scarborough - and looked set for a fourth here until, on 96, he was bowled by Lewis Hatchett, the ball taking out his leg stump via an inside edge. Given that he had been dropped in the slips on 44-- by a nervous debutant, Harry Finch - the extra 52 runs were arguably a slightly undeserved bonus, but on the balance of quality over the piece he could hardly have been begrudged another ton.
Stoneman was the first victim in a spell of three wickets for five runs in 19 balls by Hatchett, whose contract is up this autumn. He brought one back to have Paul Collingwood leg-before and produced a fine delivery to square up Phil Mustard, who was caught at second slip. The left-armer was outshone, though not by Anyon, who took four wickets, but by Steve Magoffin, whose three took him to 57 in this season's Championship. The Australian seamer was still swinging the ball deep into the innings. If his usual partner, Chris Jordan, had been available, Durham might have struggled still more.
As it was, even though Scott Borthwick, their other breakthrough performer with the bat, failed on this occasion, support for Stoneman from Will Smith, Michael Richardson and Usman Arshad, who batted nicely for his 30, gave them a total that, on the initial evidence, can be the basis for another lead.