“WHOEVER wins this will win t’Championship.”
So proclaimed Dickie Bird yesterday on a visit to the press box.
The Yorkshire president’s prediction highlighted the importance of this game.
Yorkshire went into it second in the table, nine points behind Durham with a match in hand.
Although there is still much cricket left in the season (this fixture marks the halfway stage of Yorkshire’s campaign), its significance is clear.
Time will tell if it is season-defining – or whether the Championship, indeed, is a two-horse race, with the likes of Warwickshire hoping to have something to say about that.
But what can be stated with certainty is this: win at Chester-le-Street, and the victors would have taken a giant step forward in the title race.
On that basis, it was Yorkshire who took the biggest step yesterday, scoring 329-6 after being sent into bat.
At 152-5, it had looked as though Durham were on course to end the day happier, but that was before Jonny Bairstow intervened on what is rapidly becoming a happy hunting ground.
Eight days earlier, Bairstow had clinched the one-day international series against New Zealand with a thrilling, unbeaten 83.
It followed an innings of 95 in the corresponding Championship match last summer, and one of 102 not out in the Twenty20 meeting last year between the teams.
Bairstow’s unbeaten 102 yesterday, made from 126 balls with 16 fours, continued his remarkable form since he returned from England’s Test tour of the West Indies, when he spent most of his time carrying the drinks.
Since then, his Championship scores have been 102, 59, 50, 66, 125 not out, 0, 15 and then yesterday’s effort.
He is, as they say, in the form of his life.
In the end, Yorkshire could be well pleased with their efforts before a crowd of 1,765 – a slightly disappointing figure, perhaps, given the relevance of the game.
On an overcast morning, with a stiff wind blowing in the direction of the imposing Lumley Castle, Yorkshire were immediately made to work hard.
The pitch was slow, but there was sufficient help for the bowlers to make run-scoring tricky.
Durham bowled fairly well – although perhaps not as well as one might expect from title aspirants – and the Yorkshire openers Alex Lees and Will Rhodes got their side off to a good start with a stand of 56.
It was not an alliance without alarms – Rhodes was dropped on 20 at third slip by Gordon Muchall off John Hastings, moving to his right, and there were a couple of edges that just failed to carry to the slip region – but it was a fighting performance from the two young players.
Rhodes, 20, has not quite mastered the art of turning a good start in the Championship into a sizeable contribution, and he was first out for 24 when he was bowled playing around a ball from Jamie Harrison.
Rhodes has had 11 Championship innings this summer, seven of which have ended between 24 and his current top score of 46, but the talent is there for all to see.
Lees, 22, has struggled of late in all forms of cricket.
By the time he was second out for 40, just after lunch, caught behind off Graham Onions, he had recorded his highest Championship score for 10 innings, stretching back to a century at Nottinghamshire in April.
Although Yorkshire’s rate of progress was slow (they were 106-2 after 50 overs), they had ground out a good position by mid-afternoon, by which time the sun had burned off the morning cloud. But they slipped from 124-2 to 152-5 as Durham battled their way back into the contest.
The prolific Jack Leaning was yorked by Harrison, having added 42 for the third-wicket with Andrew Gale, who was brilliantly held by Paul Collingwood running back from the slip area after he looped up a delivery from Hastings.
Aaron Finch – making his first Championship appearance of the season – also fell to Hastings, his Victoria team-mate, who had him caught at second slip by Scott Borthwick.
After tea, Adil Rashid was caught at first slip by Collingwood, playing back to a ball from Chris Rushworth, which left Yorkshire 191-6 and not yet out of the woods.
But Tim Bresnan – deemed not good enough for Twenty20 cricket at present – has been batting well in the Championship, and he combined with Bairstow to help put together an excellent and vital stand.
Bairstow did what Bairstow does: he attacked at every opportunity – albeit never recklessly –and seized on any chance to score through mid-wicket.
He brought up his half-century from 73 balls with eight fours and tailored his work to the match situation.
Bresnan gave him solid support, knuckling down to keep his wicket intact in the early stages before branching out as his innings progressed.
His unbeaten 66, achieved from 85 balls with 11 fours, lifted his Championship aggregate this summer to 398 at 66.33, a return of which any top-order player would rightfully be proud – although perhaps not Bairstow, who currently has 519 runs at 86.50.