It is one thing to prepare pitches to suit your tastes. It is another to savour them accordingly. Durham have accomplished both this season with some style.
In another low-scoring affair down by the riverside they built a commanding lead over Sussex which should propel them closer to their third County Championship title in six years. To win, the visitors will need to score at least 346, which would be the highest score of the match by 101 runs.It would be the highest fourth innings score at the ground and it is unlikely to happen, though Durham's thinking may be affected by Yorkshire's successful pursuit of 339 to win back in May.
The morning was marked by wayward batting allied to pinpoint seam bowling, always a potent combination. The afternoon featured the highest partnership of the match, 93, achieved when it was most needed.
Durham's position was secured by Paul Collingwood, their captain, and Phil Mustard, the man from whom he took over when they were in all manner of bother last season. Collingwood no doubt feels that he has had his days of wine and roses in an auspicious international career but he has not slinked from putting something back into the county which made it all possible.There was a glimmer of hope for Sussex when he came in at 80 for 4, a glimmer more at 90 for 5 but it was extinguished in the next three hours. Collingwood chugged along, nudging and nurdling, treating extravagance as the enemy, as he did during his over-achieving Test match career.
When he squeezed a shot to third man, either for a single or for a boundary, it was an occasion to stand and cheer. Mustard was quite as important, playing with sense and sensibility to make his fifth Championship fifty of the season from 119 balls, displaying his natural bent rarely, as when he sashayed down the pitch to hit a six off Chris Nash's otherwise stifling off spin.
Collingwood was out for 45 lbw to Nash, shuffling across his stumps. He would have been disappointed at his going but the job was done.
Sussex batted sloppily in conceding a first-innings lead of 133 but it was razor-sharp bowling which might have persuaded them on this course of action. Graham Onions was a handful, as is to be expected; the 20-year-old Bingleyite, Usman Arshad, in only his second Championship match, pitched it up and let it swing.
There were four wickets in all for Onions, three for Arshad, who now has a first-class bowling average of a fraction over seven, and three for Mitchell Claydon, who was recalled to the colours from his loan at Kent only the day before.
It was a travesty that there were no wickets for Chris Rushworth, who has been manful this season, instrumental in Durham's grind to the summit. Sussex contrived to lose their last seven wickets before lunch, Luke Wells starting the rot with a loose drive outside off against Onions.
The last four wickets went for nine runs and Durham were in before lunch. They found it hard going against Steve Magoffin, again splendid. The ball moved around and four of the top five fell to catches behind the stumps.
It required a calm, wise, experienced head. Collingwood supplied it and in Mustard found an improbable but welcome ally. Durham are 1.5 points behind leaders Yorkshire and should overtake their rivals soon.