AS a cold, overcast morning gave way to a sunny afternoon at Hove yesterday Durham’s fortunes spiralled into an ever steepening decline.
They were on the receiving end of a record-breaking pummelling from Luke Wright and Ben Brown, who came together in the first over after lunch and shared an unbroken stand of 326.
In the absence of Graham Onions with a back injury following his opening eight-over spell, it became sheer carnage when the second new ball was taken as 104 runs came off 16 overs.
A clearly crestfallen Onions did not hang around afterwards, saying: “I have a bad back. I don’t know any more than that.”
It transpired that Usman Arshad also has a back problem, while wicketkeeper Phil Mustard, who missed two chances when standing up, is one of four players with finger injuries.
The stand between Wright and Brown beat the Sussex record for the sixth wicket of 255 set in 1930 by K S Duleepsinhji and Maurice Tate against Northamptonshire at Hove.
It was also the record for the sixth wicket against Durham, beating the
284 set by Phil Simmons and Paul Nixon for Leicestershire at Riverside in 1996.
Following the six dropped catches against Yorkshire last week, four more went down as Sussex recovered all too easily from 115 for five to reach 441 at the close of the first day. Wright is on 183 and Brown has made a career-best 152.
Wright is seen as a one-day specialist by England and was considered good enough to bat at three in reaching 50 ODI caps when he played in the first two games in the West Indies in March.
His double failure left him to lick his wounds in Sussex’s middle order but yesterday he licked his lips as he capitalised remorselessly on Durham’s woes.
Wright was very strong on the drive and Durham could have done with a 6ft 6in bowler to test him with steep bounce. But John Hastings is not expected until June after kicking his heels watching Chennai Superkings qualify for the last four of the Indian Premier League.
A visit to Hove serves as a reminder that Hastings was due to play
Twenty20 cricket for Sussex last season but pulled out through injury.
At least he should be well rested when he arrives at Chester-le-Street as he has not played at all for Chennai.
Durham look to Onions to set the tone but after struggling to make any impression against Yorkshire last week he again looked out of sorts.
After his shabby treatment by the England selectors over the last three years his prospects were enhanced by the failure of others in the winter Ashes debacle.
But the selectors’ decision to withdraw Sussex’s Chris Jordan from this match suggests that he is pencilled in for this summer’s first Test and Onions is well out of the running.
With Scott Borthwick playing despite a minor crack in a finger, Mark Wood and Keaton Jennings also needed treatment for hand injuries sustained in trying to grab fiercely-struck return catches.
It would be unfair to call either a real chance, but of the four which went down the simplest was spilled at deep mid-wicket by Michael Richardson off Borthwick with Wright on 80.
Mustard, standing up first to Jennings then to Chris Rushworth, dropped Brown on 43 and 47, while the first chance, offered by Michael Yardy, wasn’t costly as he made only five.
Paul Collingwood could not be blamed for choosing to field first, based on last September’s experience here, when the pitch got flatter as the match progressed.
Chris Nash cut and pulled Onions for two fours in the opening over, but the four seamers grabbed a wicket each before lunch then Rushworth took his second with the third ball after the break.
But the ease with which Wright had settled in before lunch hinted that the pendulum had swung firmly in the batsmen’s favour and Brown has shown before against Durham that he is the latest in a long line of Sussex wicketkeepers capable of scoring centuries.
Durham had to post men patrolling the cover and mid-wicket boundaries to stem the flow; other than that they were powerless to do anything about it.
Rushworth was miserly in the morning, conceding only ten runs in eight overs and making the breakthrough when Nash played back and edged to Mustard for ten.
Yardy edged Onions low to third slip’s left, where Kumar Sangakkara held a good catch, then Ed Joyce looked in ominously good form. But after driving Usman Arshad to the cover boundary to reach 21 he pushed forward to the next ball and lost his off stump.
Obdurate opener Luke Wells edged Wood to Mustard after batting 105 minutes for 19 and the wicketkeeper held his third catch to get rid of Matt Machan straight after lunch. How he must rue the two he put down later.