David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps
Worcestershire 309 (Leach 62, Potts 6-62) and 85 for 2 need a further 357 to beat Durham 580 for 6 dec and 170 for 1 dec (Dickson 105, Lees 60*)
Two centuries in the match for Sean Dickson, the second of them a rip-roaring affair made at a pace that only Ben Stokes has ever outdone in Durham's history, and then only on the previous day, have prepared the ground for Durham to secure their first win of the season at the fifth attempt, an overdue reward for a county that was strongly fancied to be contesting the promotion places at the beginning of the season.
Durham need eight wickets on the final day to beat Worcestershire, who are still 357 runs adrift, but any regular county cricket observers who have alighted on the competition for the first time this summer need to be brought up to date: that task is no longer as straightforward as it was once.
Durham's task is also compounded by the fact that the workload of Stokes, England's new captain, their champion allrounder and therefore a tough guy who is regarded as vulnerable as porcelain, must be managed on his first appearance of the season. "Put overs into the legs of the Durham bowlers," was the understandable policy of the Worcestershire dressing room. It was just that… there's a tough England summer ahead, can't you go a little easy?
Stokes has set up their victory push, alongside Dickson, with his breathtaking 161 from 88 balls on the second day, which delighted all who saw it, apart from Kevin Pietersen, who demanded the emergency introduction of franchise cricket, but it is questionable whether he will be able to finish off the job with the ball.
England's official instructions to their pace attack on the rare occasions they play county cricket are apparently not quite as prescriptive as once they were. Either they have happily adopted a less authoritarian approach or they just know that the likes of Stokes, James Anderson and Stuart Broad have the strength of mind to prepare themselves for Test cricket much as they see fit. But everybody knows there must be limits.
If there is no likelihood therefore that Stokes' phone will ping at breakfast on the final day advising him to bowl 12 overs in three four-over bursts, unless the wind is from a northerly direction, in which case the number of overs allowed should be divided by the moisture content of the pitch measured at hourly intervals, they may prefer instead to send an ambitious middle manager, armed with a Bluetooth-enabled microphone, to yell in his direction if he gets carried away.
Such a recourse may be necessary because Durham could face an exacting day to force victory at New Road and confirm themselves as worthy promotion challengers. The pitch showed signs of unevenness for the new ball, and Chris Rushworth, who has had a tough season, took advantage by removing both Worcestershire openers, but it could easily go flat. With respect to Liam Trevaskis they do not have a spinner of repute, and the workhorse seamer - Ben Raine - stood down for Stokes in this match.
At 169 for 6 when play resumed, the arrears still a monumental 411 runs, Worcestershire's second innings might have been expected to run aground fairly quickly. But this is 2022, where batters have strutted their stuff and even the tailenders have done a good impression of the same. Joe Leach's defiant 62 was the main component as Worcestershire batted the same amount of time again and, after a best-ignored but professionally-impressive sequence when the last pair blocked for 40 minutes without a run, their stand worth 29 in 19 overs, they were only one ball short of 100 overs when they were dismissed for 309.
Matthew Potts tacked on the wicket of Ben Cox to register 6 for 62 in a season where he has been one of the standout quick bowlers on predominately benign pitches. It should be conceded, however, that the number of quality fast bowlers jostling for attention would barely fill a phone box, especially as these days most of the room is already taken up by defibrillators or Ken Follett novels.
In the circumstances, Scott Borthwick's decision to give his bowlers a breather, and bat again, made sense and he could no have been happier with the outcome as Dickson recorded his second hundred of the match, Alex Lees (with less of the strike) added an unbeaten 60 and Durham declared after 21.3 overs at 170 for 1.
Worcestershire spent much of the time employing white-ball tactics, to no great effect as Durham scored at a rate that they only manage occasionally in T20 itself. They also got Josh Baker, their 18-year-old left-arm spinner, back into the game as early as the seventh over after his 34-run mauling from Stokes on the previous day. Dickson reverse swept his first ball for four and later deposited a full toss so far that the ball was never found. After a lengthy delay, Baker bounced back with the replacement, beat the outside edge but Cox missed the stumping. Character-forming stuff, which is always a disturbing phrase.
Dickson's century rattled along in only 69 balls, which would have been the fastest hundred in Durham's history had not Stokes managed one in 64 balls in the first innings. "I did realise when I was on about 60 that I was in with a chance of the fastest century for Durham but they kept bowling really wide down the leg side. I was going for it. It wasn't to be."
Stokes' hundred gained widespread media attention, whereas Dickson (and this report is culpable) will do well to get a nod of recognition. Such is the life of the respected but largely unsung county pro. He struck eight sixes on his way to his fourth century of the season and third in successive innings. He is having an outstanding season with this hundred giving him 729 runs at an average of 81 and taking him beyond Derbyshire's Shan Masood as the leading run-maker in either division of the Championship.
He will doubtless feel miffed that runs are so plentiful that his efforts may not receive the notice they deserve. That's county cricket, but on a golden Spring evening at New Road it was still a wonderful place for any person of imagination to be.
How many people have captained, kept wicket and opened the batting in the same Test?
Also: where does Jasprit Bumrah's five-for stand among the best bowling performances in the IPL?
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Opener's 69-ball effort, only marginally slower than his more celebrated team-mate, leaves Worcestershire clinging on