Mark Stoneman builds Durham's unexpected title credentials

Durham 245 Sussex 60-3

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Among the possible Championship contenders at the start of this season, Durham were conspicuous by their absence. There was a reason for the expert punditry: the county were broke, had hung on to their First Division status only with an astonishing run-in last year, had no overseas player, had suffered retirements, been docked points, lacked solidity in their batting and depth of quality in their bowling.

Apart from that they were highly fancied. Three weeks to go in the season and if the title is not quite Durham's to lose they are now favourites to win it for the third time in six years. The explanation was on display today where they compiled a first innings of 245 which was well short of spectacular but which they knew they could work with.

By the close of the first day, it looked slightly superior to that. Sussex, weakened and a tad disaffected by absences, had reached a restless 60 for 3. Undermined at the top of their order by the splendid Graham Onions, returning after three weeks out with a broken pinkie, they need to win to retain their own slim Championship pretensions.

Durham had batted first in all six previous home matches and made between 237 and 267 in five of them. The exception was when they scored 421 against Surrey for whom the description of being a shambles was by all accounts flattering. Mark Stoneman was the leading contributor on a surface which was far from a minefield but the ball nibbled around disconcertingly, ensuring that seam bowlers never lost interest.

This has been the most prodigious of Stoneman's seven seasons as a professional and he overtook Scott Borthwick in the race to be the county's leading run scorer. Local boys both, they have exemplified the virtues of counties spotting and rearing their own talent as Surrey probably realised recently when they came up north to be hammered by an innings.

Stoneman deserved to reach his fourth hundred of the season. He was assertive from the start but also watchful after the side had lost their second wicket by the 13th over. He shared an important stand with Will Smith for third wicket. Smith, a former captain, played with his usual compactness and Matthew Richardson was similarly well ordered.

Both would have been disappointed not to go on beyond the thirties. They provided James Anyon with two of his four wickets. Anyon was the most successful bowler for Sussex, though Steve Magoffin was the more consistent.

After lunch Lewis Hatchett, a left arm swing bowler, was real handful. In 20 balls he knocked out Stoneman's leg stump, had Paul Collingwood leg before with one that swung in and had Phil Mustard caught low at second slip.

The second of those wickets remains one truly worth having. Collingwood has had a subdued season with the bat but Durham are in their position largely because of his knowing and mature captaincy. He has been there and done it in 68 Test matches for England and he is putting something back at the place where it all started.