Flintoff back in the groove but Durham on top

Durham 244 & 122-6 Lancashire 116
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The Independent Online

Winning the County Championship last season may have been the fulfilment of a dream for Durham but they clearly have no intention of resting on their achievement.

Last week, they blew away Hampshire, a genuine contender, by an innings and 110 runs before noon on the third day; this time, it is Lancashire who are feeling the North-east wind.

It will be a surprise if a fourth day is needed in this match. There were enough dismissals yesterday – 18 in total – to prompt enquiries about the pitch from anyone who was not present, and from some who were. Lancashire, pleased with themselves for keeping Durham to 244, could muster only 116 in reply; Durham, who lost their first four second-innings wickets for 10, closed six down.

Yet there are no demons in this surface. There may have been some in the minds of the batsmen. Then again, on both sides, they were up against fast bowling of the highest quality. Indeed, the quartet who inflicted most of the damage would amount to a pretty tasty England pace attack.

Steve Harmison, Graham Onions, Andrew Flintoff and Saj Mahmood: bring those four together, with radars locked on and body parts fully working, and even an Australian dressing room might seem a nervous place.

Flintoff took the first two wickets yesterday, with consecutive deliveries. Harmison and Onions then shared eight in Lancashire’s demolition before Mahmood laid into Durham’s top order. With good bounce and just enough purchase, it was a sporting pitch that suited them, but if they could just find a way to have all their planets in alliance a little more often, many frustrated brows could be unfurrowed.

Onions should be excluded from that assessment. In terms of unreliability, whether physical or mental, the other three have form. Onions, for the most part, has identified his talent and delivered, this season particularly. So far, in all forms of cricket, he has 48 wickets, 10 of those in the Test series against West Indies.

He is a feisty character, though. When Ashwell Prince, leaving the stage with reluctance after umpire Neil Mallender had raised the finger to an lbw shout, responded with a hard stare and some choice words, Onions simply gave some back.

Harmison saw off Francois du Plessis, Lancashire’s sole batting success, among his 4 for 28 but not with a good ball. The one he enjoyed most did for Flintoff, whom he surprised with – fuller delivery that reached the stumps via an inside edge – revenge for being out first ball to his mate earlier.

Flintoff – Peter Moores will report should England ask their former coach – bowled splendidly, conceding one run the first six overs of his opening second-innings spell. He took the wicket of Phil Mustard, whose 51 had been Durham’s redemption at the start of the day.

Blackwell, unbeaten on 65 after being dropped off Flintoff on 18, led their recovery in the evening and, if the bowlers continue to hold sway, the champions may already have a winning lead.