Durham made themselves favourites for the Championship when the perseverance of their depleted bowling attack was rewarded with a seven-wicket victory over leaders Yorkshire, who saw their lead slashed by 20 points.
In a contest watched by almost 19,000 spectators over the four days at Scarborough, the home side were always battling to stay in the game after conceding more than 400 runs on the opening day, although they hoped to salvage a draw after entering the last day at 276 for one following on, which put them 23 behind.
However, after a stand of 264 for the second wicket was quickly broken by Ben Stokes with the last ball of his second over – New Zealander Kane Williamson falling three short of a maiden hundred for the county – they were worn down steadily by the Durham attack, even with Mark Wood unable to bowl because of a side strain.
Stokes struck again with the second ball of his third over, ending a brilliant 151 by Phil Jaques, and although it took until tea to complete the job, with Stokes, Chris Rushworth and leg-spinning all-rounder Scott Borthwick taking three wickets each, Durham were left with 38 overs to score 121 for victory. They cruised home with more than 10 overs to spare after Borthwick, enjoying his best season with the bat, scored his eighth half-century of the campaign.
With a game in hand, Durham take on title outsiders Sussex at Chester-le-Street next week just 5.5 points behind Yorkshire, who do not play again until they meet Sussex at Hove in 10 days' time. Yesterday's win extends Paul Collingwood's outstanding record as captain since he took over from Phil Mustard midway through last season to 11 wins from 18 Championship matches.
Simon Kerrigan, putting his nightmare Test debut at the Oval firmly behind him, took four for 97, and seven wickets in the match, as Lancashire defeated Hampshire by 122 runs at Southport, a victory that almost guarantees their return to the First Division next season.
Mark Robinson, the Sussex coach, defended his side's decision not to offer Warwickshire a target and instead play out a draw at Edgbaston. "We thought about taking a gamble but we needed to be in a position to give ourselves 50 overs to have a chance of bowling them out and the odds were too much against us," he explained.