Sussex 232 and 59 for 3 (Rushworth 3-11) need a further 378 to beat Durham 384 and 284 for 3 dec (Lees 143, Harte 77)
It was only three summers ago that Alex Lees was praised to the heavens by both Geoffrey Boycott and Dickie Bird yet still seemed certain to play for England. He carried accolades easily and batted as if it were his calling. So when Lees drove Chris Jordan for successive boundaries on this third morning, he disturbed memories of those days when cricket's table was laid out before him. But when he thick-edged Delray Rawlins to the third man boundary in mid-afternoon to bring up his century it was also salutary to note he had reached three figures for only the second time since September 2017.
Lees' batting at a Hove of sun and sea breezes recalled his early years with Yorkshire when the runs flowed from his bat and an England call did indeed seem a matter of time. But time passed and with it went Lees' consistency and application. He would play himself in, only to find a way to get himself out. Before long his place in the Yorkshire side was in jeopardy and his move to Durham last August appeared to make good sense after an early season in which he had scored only 50 runs in four Championship matches for the White Rose.
The geographical cure did not work at once. Lees managed only 256 runs in 11 Championship innings for Durham last season, meaning that his tally in the format that matters most to professionals had more or less halved in each of the two seasons following 2016, when he made 1165 runs. No one with a feeling for the game could take any pleasure in such a decline, so Lees' revival this summer has been greeted with satisfaction far beyond the County Palatine.
That said, the recovery has been relatively modest. Lees had made only 309 runs before this game against Sussex but that total included 63 and 107 in the win against Derbyshire, Durham's only four-day victory of the season, and his 143 this afternoon may well set up a second triumph. Cameron Bancroft's declaration on 284 for 3 challenged Sussex to score 437 in a minimum of 126 overs and by the close they had reached 59 for 3 after 30 wonderfully tense overs.
Sussex's pursuit began atrociously when Chris Rushworth's fifth ball of the innings hit Luke Wells high up on the right pad and the opener was caught by Jack Burnham at third slip. Most people at the1st Central County Ground, including, to judge from his non-involvement in the appeal, Rushworth, thought the ball had hit nothing but the batsman's leg. Umpire Ben Debenham took a different view of matters. Wells was aghast and Rushworth made a mental note to buy an extra couple of lottery tickets.
Four overs later there was a far less controversial dismissal when the wretchedly out-of-form Harry Finch drove a catch back to Rushworth, thereby collecting a pair. But Will Beer and Stiaan van Zyl prevented Durham making further breakthroughs until Beer was leg before wicket to Rushworth when only six balls remained of a long evening session in which Hove was at its glorious best. The sunlight was sharp crystal and the slips' flannels fluttered in the breeze like Eric Morecambe's plus fours. The only thing spoiling home supporters' satisfaction was their team's travails. Even a draw would be a very significant achievement and victory cannot be contemplated. Sussex's batsmen are in the foothills of Shishapangma.
Yet the current plight of the third-placed team in Division Two this season reflects very well on the bottom side, Durham, whose cricketers have dominated this game since midway through the second day. With the second ball of this morning's play the admirable Brydon Carse collected his maiden five-wicket haul in first-class cricket when he bowled Rawlins. Reasonably enough on a good pitch but one taking some turn, Bancroft opted not to enforce the follow-on, and naturally enough, Durham's innings began badly when the skipper played forward to a ball outside his off stump but only edged a catch to Finch at second slip. Not since April 8 have Durham's openers put on more than 14 for the first wicket in a Championship and they have had 11 attempts at it.
The rest of the innings was controlled by Lees and to a lesser degree by Gareth Harte. The pair put on 215 for the second wicket with Harte making 77 before he drove Wells to Rawlins at short cover. The pitch was flat and the bowling unthreatening but Lees maintained his focus on the task of piling up runs. There were times late in his Yorkshire career when he seemed capable of getting out to the Brownies on the beach. This afternoon he batted as if the crease might once again become his kingdom.
Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications