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Durham on the brink ... of defeat and the drop
RELEGATION looks increasingly inevitable for Durham after they suffered one of their darkest hours in the shadow of Arundel Castle yesterday.
Only rain and a battling innings from skipper Paul Collingwood saved them from a three-day defeat against Sussex after they had slumped to 39 for six following first innings parity.
They had reached 80 for seven, with Collingwood on 29, when rain ended play shortly before 5.30.
With fine weather forecast on the final day, Sussex will look to Australian Steve Magoffin, who has taken four for 14, to mop up the tail.
Collingwood feels if he can extend the lead of 80 to 120 Durham might still have a chance, although he added that 150 would be ideal.
"It's hard to score runs out there," he said. "The ball moved around all day through the air and off the pitch.
"I took the decision to be a bit more positive, but otherwise it was left to individuals."
Unless Durham find that Johann Myburgh is the answer in the remaining six matches they will have to target a top order batsman for next season.
They will surely have to bring in an overseas man to halt the alarming decline they have suffered over the last year.
Following a sunny morning the afternoon clatter of wickets began when Sussex lost their last four for ten runs and it continued with the ball nipping around under heavy cloud.
Nothing should detract from the splendour of Arundel, but with conditions so heavily in the bowlers' favour it was not a good advert for outground cricket.
Conversely, Lancashire's slump at Old Trafford handed Worcestershire 21 points for a victory which left Durham even further adrift at the foot of the table.
With 44 overs left on the third day when Durham began their second innings a draw looked inevitable if the match continued its sedate progress, with runs coming at fewer than three an over as both teams totalled 231.
But Durham's collapse reawakened memories of Taunton, where they slumped to defeat after being bowled out for 167 in their second innings following first innings parity.
There were six lbw decisions in the first two sessions yesterday, the last two sending back Mark Stoneman for a duck and Gordon Muchall for two. Stoneman, who has been in good form, was playing no stroke and looked very aggrieved.
Ben Stokes also fell for nought, whipping a catch straight to mid-wicket off the back foot to give Magoffin his third wicket with the total on ten.
Dale Benkenstein went on the attack either side of tea, which was taken early with rain falling and it was starting to come down again when he and Will Smith fell to successive balls.
Smith pushed forward and edged Jimmy Anyon to first slip then off the first ball of the next over Benkenstein edged Magoffin low to wicketkeeper Ben Brown after making 14 off six balls.
That made it 29 for five and after a short break for rain Collingwood and Phil Mustard added ten before the wicketkeeper tried to pull Kirk Wernars' first ball and skied a catch to mid-wicket.
Scott Borthwick helped to add 24 before being caught behind off Luke Wright then Callum Thorp survived to the close as Collingwood mixed solid defence with crisp strokes.
Thorp and Chris Rushworth wrapped up the Sussex tail with the new ball, sharing the wickets as the last four went down for ten runs, all scored by Monty Panesar to the delight of the fans.
Thorp finished with his season's-best of four for 35 in 22 overs, while Rushworth had four for 52 after conceding the ten Panesar scored before skying a catch to mid-on.
There were six lbws in the innings, the first four given by Nigel Llong at the castle end before Neil Mallender awarded two from successive balls for Thorp.
When Sussex were 188 for five shortly after lunch they would have fancied a healthy lead, but Collingwood struck a vital blow for Durham.
Trying to fiddle through a few overs until the new ball was due, he was jubilant when he claimed the scalp of opposing captain Mike Yardy for the game's top score of 66.
One of six left-handers in the home side, Yardy was aiming for mid-wicket when Collingwood had him lbw.
There was also a wicket for Stokes as Luke Wright edged a drive to Collingwood at slip, but Mitch Claydon served up a mixed bag.
He conceded ten in an over after attempting two diving stops off successive balls at long leg. With the first he succeeded brilliantly but with the second he had the misfortune to tip the ball over the rope.
Fast bowlers of old might have stuck out a boot but certainly would not have dived full length during the middle of a spell, and it didn't appear to do Claydon any good.
In and out of the side, he will have to make way again next week, assuming Graham Onions is fit for Friday's start at home to Middlesex.
He apparently has what the ECB medical staff call a grade one hamstring strain, which is as minor as it gets. Durham desperately need him as they seek to win at last three of their last four games.