Durham scent title as Di Venuto hits record

Durham 473-4 dec Sussex 119-1 (Sussex trail by 354 runs)
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The Independent Online

The weather in the north-east of England is not always kind, although by helping to wreck the greed-driven experiment with Test cricket in May it arguably did the game a major service. Yesterday, in a more conventional sense, it shone favourably on the county champions.

While England could only count the puddles at Edgbaston, the morning rain here drifted benignly out to sea, allowing play to begin only an hour and 20 minutes late. The Durham executive, belatedly rewarded an Ashes Test in 2013, will have noted, with a wry smile perhaps, how quickly their surface became playable.

On the field, their team did not waste the opportunity, raising the tempo sufficiently to turn 264-2 from 93 overs overnight into maximum batting points before declaring at tea on 473-4, after Michael Di Venuto, who had needed to graft at times to be unbeaten on 149 at Friday's close, took advantage of a tiring Sussex attack to make a new entry in his career history by reaching 254 before Will Smith, the Durham captain, decided he had had enough.

The Tasmanian opener's reward for eight and a half hours in the middle was the biggest single first-class score of his 17-year first-class career, eclipsing the 230 he made for Derbyshire against Northamptonshire in 2002. It is his fourth double hundred in an aggregate that now exceeds 22,000 runs, of which 973 have been added in the current season.

Typically, he found his strength on the pull, hook and cut, picking out the gaps in Sussex's field on the drive with impressive regularity. The bowlers, who had plugged away with commendable discipline on Friday, found the going tougher now. Luke Wright was too short at times while Corey Collymore, who had worked particularly hard on day one, strayed off line much more often. The spinners were no more restrictive.

Gordon Muchall, who has found little form since making a century against Sussex at Hove in May, suffered another failure soon after the start, going back to defend against Yasir Arafat but edging a catch to the wicketkeeper. But his dismissal only introduced Dale Benkenstein, who announced his intentions by hooking a Collymore no-ball for six to get off the mark, setting a brisk pace for a partnership that ultimately yielded 173 runs in little over a couple of hours before, having watched Di Venuto survive the one chance he offered – to slip off Luke Wright on 180 – he top-edged a hook during a brief interlude of off-spin from opening batsman Chris Nash.

Di Venuto's score was the second highest by a Durham batsman in the county's history and bodes well for their prospects of retaining their title. Another here would equal their tally of victories for the whole of last season and, with the weather forecast much better for today and tomorrow, do not bet against them pulling it off.

Not everything in the champions' garden is entirely fragrant. The success of Graham Onions at Edgbaston, and the award of an incremental England contract, probably means their leading wicket-taker can be largely discounted from their plans.

There is the question, also, of how Steve Harmison responds to being named in the last two Test squads only to be jettisoned. His knock-backs lately have prompted a steely willingness to bowl himself back into contention but there is probably a limit. He has not publicly rebutted the suggestion that he will turn his back on international cricket once this Ashes series has finished and therein lies a worry.

Back in action here last night for the first time in two weeks, he looked a little rusty at first, although, after Callum Thorp had made Durham's first breakthrough by trapping Nash leg before, he forced Ed Joyce to retire with a damaged elbow at the start of his second spell. If anyone, today, can make things happen on this easy-paced pitch, it is he. By the close, the hostility was returning and the accuracy improving, although Mark Davies bowled more impressively. Michael Yardy, 54 not out, is doing his best to lead a Sussex fightback.