Matches (11)
T20 World Cup (2)
County DIV1 (5)
County DIV2 (4)
27th Match, Blackpool, May 17 - 20, 2024, County Championship Division One
357 & 353/9d
(T:475) 236 & 414

Lancashire won by 60 runs


Ben Stokes shows his signature moves as bowling comeback begins in earnest

Jennings century gives Lancashire a strong platform on tacky pitch in Blackpool

Ben Stokes was straight into action with the ball on his first appearance of the season, Lancashire vs Durham, County Championship, Blackpool, May 17, 2024

Ben Stokes was straight into action with the ball on his first appearance of the season  •  Getty Images

Lancashire 350 for 9 (Jennings 115, Bruce 46, Raine 3-67, Stokes 2-70) vs Durham
"I've tried to get Erling Haaland's signature for one of these, " said a punter stood on the bank at the Stanley Park End. "But he flat out refuses." A framed artist's sketch in his right hand - the winning moment from Headingley 2019 - is waved towards the Pavilion. "But he would sign it, wouldn't he?"
English cricket is a long way off football when it comes to ring-fenced superstars, partly because the latter's stars are all the more super. UEFA had to go as far as publicly warning their officials for autograph-hunting after an assistant referee requested Haaland's after a Champions League defeat to Manchester City while at Borussia Dortmund. City had to pay around £52 million for the privilege a year later.
But here was Ben Stokes, the country's most recognisable cricketer long before he became Test captain, at Blackpool Cricket Club within badgering distance of around 1,500 spectators. Our man had already put in the request to Stokes in the morning, who advised to catch him at lunch. There were plenty more waiting by Friday evening.
Stokes' first County Championship match for Durham in almost exactly two years was a fact-finding mission. The soft launch of his "new" left knee came in the foothills of the Himalayas following an operation last November, beginning spectacularly with a wicket off his first delivery of the fifth Test against India. But it was here in a quainter setting on the Fylde Coast - as Lancashire, initially thriving through Keaton Jennings' second century of the season, then hustling to an eventual day-one score of 350 for 9 - where that cleaned-out joint was given a proper test drive following his introduction in the 10th over of day one.
The 17 overs for his 2 for 70 were split across spells of four, two, six and five, with the latter two containing his first County Championship wickets since knocking over Tim Murtagh at Lord's on May 21, 2022. The signs of a full return as an allrounder for the first Test against West Indies at Lord's from July 10 are promising.
The breakthrough came when Josh Bohannon top-edged a misjudged pull out to Callum Parkinson at deep square leg. That last spell, Stokes' best of the lot as he extracted movement and pace off a tacky surface with the dregs of the first new ball, saw him remove Tom Bruce caught and bowled off a short length delivery, two overs after whistling one past the Kiwi batter's ears.
"I think he'll be a little bit sore tomorrow morning," Jennings said, having been out in the middle for Stokes' first three spells. "He was good. There was energy on the ball, he swung it. He did get a little frustrated with himself at times. But that's Stokesy - if he's not perfect, he wants to make it perfect."
"He gives it his all," added Ben Raine, the pick of Durham's attack with 3 for 67. "You saw him today running in, and it's nice to see him now he's got his knee operation and stuff like that, bowling pain-free, and happy with his bowling. That's mint and that's mint for English cricket. I'm looking forward to seeing the summer that he has."
It was by no means a slick day's work for Stokes, with three front-foot no-balls and plenty of self-flagellation as he looked to shake off the ring-rust ahead of the Test summer. Or indeed Durham, who after winning the toss and opting to bowl first took time to snap out of their hard-wired first-class lengths and go fuller on a club surface. The four drops, of varying difficulties, did not help either.
And the visitors' annoyance was compounded when Saqib Mahmood closed out the day with a cavalier 40 not out - a new high score for the county, short of a personal best of 49 for England on the 2022 tour of West Indies. Three balls before the close, Nathan Lyon was shelled by Matthew Potts, sprawling low to his right at second slip, off Parkinson.
It was a neat bookend for Lancashire, who began with a more traditional stand of 87 between Jennings and Luke Wells after losing the toss. Had one of Ollie Robinson or Scott Borthwick reacted to an edge from Jennings on 28, found by Paul Coughlin, that bisected wicketkeeper and first slip, the opening stand would have been capped on 49. Well's wicket - caught second slip off Potts, who deserved no less - was the only one to fall in a cloudy opening session.
Stokes' removal of Bohannon started a middle-order cascade of 3 for 51, the last of which was Jennings failing to lift Parkinson over mid-on. It was by no means the smoothest of the Lancashire skipper's 29 red-ball centuries. He acknowledged as much by patting an infuriated Potts on the back, who had dropped to his haunches mid-pitch after an edge wide of the cordon took Jennings to three figures from his 137th ball with his 15th boundary.
That Jennings purveyed empathy in a moment of his own glory is not all that surprising, given his personality and the fact that many of these opponents are friends. The former Durham man tapped into his knowledge of those ex-teammates throughout - walking at Raine to put him off bowling fuller and sitting back to Coughlin to try and coax his lengths forward.
Durham's decision at the toss, while not quite vindicated on Friday, could be over the weekend with the best of the batting conditions on offer on a pitch that is expected to flatten out. Around 2,000 are due here on Saturday, no doubt craving the sight of Stokes' batting - maybe more so than his signature.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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County Championship Division One