Ramprakash roars ahead

Middlesex 307 & 397-5 dec Durham 204 & 82-2
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THESE days sides treat trips to Durham as foreign armies used to treat Poland, a place to be marched through and ransacked before the real battles begin elsewhere. For Mike Gatting's troops, who have fought their way to the brink of their sixth Championship title since 1980 with five successive victories, this was a mere skirmish before the contest against Northamptonshire at Uxbridge later this month that may well decide the season's main prize.

The architect of those famous five, which will surely become six after Middlesex set Durham an utterly improbable 501 to win, has been Mark Ramprakash.

What with Graeme Hick's century at Trent Bridge, this has been a good week for the enigmas of English cricket. Since that ghastly moment at Lord's where he stood transfixed, unable to believe he had collected a Test pair, Ramprakash's form has been astonishing - 775 Championship runs at an average of 129.

Watched by the England selector David Graveney, he began this morning on 100, his fourth century in six Championship innings, and drove his way to a 155 encrusted with 24 boundaries before being magnificently caught and bowled by James Boiling.

He gave only one chance, on 136, but David Ligertwood was unable to accept an edge from Neil Killeen, a promising teenage seamer from the long-defunct pit village of Annfield Plain.

Like a medieval torturer, Gatting grinned as he turned the thumbscrews, watching John Carr push the lead into fantasy land with a second half- century of the match before declaring.

Against a side that has only once gone beyond 400 this year, Gatting's declaration was surely overkill, but the man with the greying beard and the broad bat has never been one to show mercy, even to Mike Roseberry, with whom he shared a dressing-room for 10 seasons at Lord's.

Despite his recently broken finger, inflamed by a blow on the hand in the first innings, Gatting still stationed himself at long leg for a misdirected hook from his former opening batsman. Roseberry, who has endured a barren summer after the hosannas that greeted the return to his native land, batted with a deperate resolve before that rarest of phenomena, rain, drifted over the Riverside Ground with 32 overs remaining.

By then he had lost his opening partner Stewart Hutton and his vice-captain John Morris, whose past 11 innings have produced just 178 fitful runs. England's forgotten starlet lasted all of five balls in the match, once more failing to assert his right to twinkle.