610 days they waited. The last time the Durham faithful saw meaningful action at Chester-Le-Street was a damp September Tuesday in 2019, Glamorgan providing the opposition. It was a Division Two clash and the last two days were washouts.

Oh, how the world has changed. And on Day 611, familiar faces were re-united, members taking up spots they’ve occupied for decades, creating that humdrum backdrop cricket is famed for. Some seats though will never be re-filled, some padded cushions never again sat on. That must be remembered.

The 1,700 or so present last Thursday were treated to a glorious day in the north east. Summer had finally arrived, and with it the reigning County Champions. It was on paper a stern test, and in practice proved even tougher. When the visitors were dismissed for just 182 mid-way through the opening day, the locals’ humdrum turned to buzz.

By the time Durham were skittled for 99 – the first time they’ve made that score in the County Championship – the following morning, that had faded. And after Essex had their second dig, Scott Borthwick’s side faced an unlikely target of 385 to win. It would have been their second biggest chase in history. They fell well short. 195 runs to be precise.

Durham have nowt to be ashamed of mind. Essex are the benchmark side of recent years, dominating red-ball cricket under first veteran Ryan ten Doeschate and now local-boy-done-good Tom Westley. Amongst their ranks they have stardust in Sir Alistair Cook and Simon Harmer, a South African off-spinner who slices through top orders like a League Two centre forward through a Boumsong-Bramble axis. He’s claimed 74 (2017) and 86 (2019) wickets respectively in Essex’s dual title wins.

But his gargantuan mitts barely got hold of the ball.  For in Jamie Porter, Sam Cook and Peter Siddle, Essex have arguably the domestic game’s finest seam trio. And in bowler friendly conditions, they claimed 18 of the 20 Durham wickets to fall across three days.  The entire square at the Riverside was re-laid over the winter, and the pitch is still bedding in. Usually, cautious grounds folk like to make such a change piecemeal, but with the river a Ben Stokes blow away, the ground underneath was sagging. They had little choice.

The positives? Well, there are plenty. In Dave Beddingham and Chris Rushworth, Durham have the County Championship’s leading run-scorer and wicket-grabber respectively. The former had a lean game by his standards, while Rushworth also claimed five wickets in the match.

There was a five-for too for Ben Raine, match figures of 9-109 taking him to an even 300 first-class wickets at 26.05. One of a handful of mackems in the side, Raine started with Durham but moved to Leicestershire seeking further opportunity. Along with Borthwick and Paul Coughlin, he returned home in recent years and it has borne fruit. Durham welcomed back a cricketer entering his prime.

Remarkably there were 19 LBWs in the game. That had the assembled press scrambling to determine whether a record was on the cards. After much too-ing a fro-ing, all agreed that the world high was 20 (achieved twice in the West Indies) but it was at least a domestic record. Remarkably there was just one catch offered to an outfielder in the game: Alex Lees mistiming a pull shot from a rank ten Doeschate long hop. Nick Browne was giggling away at cover by the time the ball floated into his hands. Other than a run out of Adam Wheater – the umpire giving the decision while taking evasive action and glancing over his shoulders – everything else came bowled, leg-before or caught at the wicket. The virtues of bowling straight!

Speaking of Lees, he’s a shining example of Durham’s fine recruitment policy. Having made three hundred in his first full season for Yorkshire (2014), he passed the 1,000 runs as the Tykes claimed the 2015 title. England Lions honours came, and a near 1,200-run campaign in 2016 took him to the cusp of full-international honours. He then fell on lean times but the move to Chester-Le-Street ahead of the 2019 season has worked wonders. In just 33 matches, he has 2084 runs with five centuries.

Against Essex he went boldly where few dare to dance: into Harmer’s grill. A flurry of boundaries was capped with a huge six straight down the ground. Could a miracle happen? Alas Lees fell victim to his own success, Harmer switching ends leaving Lees on the end of the aforementioned rank long hop.  But in Lees, Borthwick, Beddingham and Australian Cameron Bancroft make for a formidable top four.

[Tomorrow] Durham travel south to Worcestershire, whose New Road home spends half the winter under water. If ever you pop in, don’t forget to try the scrumptious cake served from the Ladies’ Pavilion come three bells. It is a huge game. Ahead of the season, most thought the group would be Essex plus one, but it’s transpired to be tighter than Mike Ashley’s wallet. And with Nottinghamshire heading to Chelmsford for a top-two clash, Durham have a chance to make up ground.

Finally, a little NUFC watch. Sean Longstaff may have been snubbed for much of the season by Steve Bruce, but he was straight back into the Tynemouth Cricket Club XI last week. On Friday he grabbed 2-16 in a T20 victory over Boldon CC, and he followed it up with 4-35 from 15 overs in Saturday’s thumping of Felling CC. Longstaff removed both openers in each game. They always have to be brilliant at everything don’t they?!

SAM DALLING