DURHAM'S decline continued yesterday as more dropped catches and sub-standard batting handed Hampshire a chance to lift themselves off the foot of division one.

A fourth successive home defeat looms unless the tail wags ferociously when they resume on 126 for six in their second innings, leading by 88.

Injuries have exposed the threadbare nature of the squad, piling too great a burden on some who have passed their peak for the season. The notable exception is Graham Onions, whose search for form is bearing fruit when the rest are withering.

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He bowled superbly yesterday morning, but was kept out by the sheer determination of Will Smith and Liam Dawson. They provided a lesson in survival which Durham failed to heed.

Just as Liam Plunkett has done this season, former Durham captain Smith returned to haunt his former team-mates as he also held three catches at gully.

He and Dawson scored only two runs in the day's first eight overs, but laid the platform for others to press on and earn a useful lead of 38.

Onions, who finished with four for 61, was denied his second successive five-wicket haul by Gordon Muchall dropping another catch at third slip with Sean Ervine on 31. It was one of four Durham put down in the innings following the costly misses in the previous defeat by Middlesex.

Another big concern is finding an opening batsman. Mark Stoneman has had three different partners in the the last three home games and they have totalled 21 in six innings.

Stoneman has also hit the buffers in his bid to join Scott Borthwick in scoring 1,000 runs for the third successive season. Both perished playing expansive shots yesterday, offering catches to Smith, which he gratefully accepted to atone for dropping Ryan Pringle in the first innings.

After taking all three wickets to fall the previous evening, Onions beat the bat several times, but Durham's luck changed when he made way for John Hastings.

Dawson edged a pull to wicketkeeper Michael Richardson to depart for 25, ending the dogged stand of 58 in 32 overs, then Smith was caught at long leg for 38.

At 110 for five Durham needed to turn the screw, but the grip exercised by Onions and Chris Rushworth could not be maintained and Ervine added 48 in ten overs with Adam Wheater.

Onions returned after lunch to have Wheater lbw before South African Ryan McLaren continued his successful Hampshire debut by making 30.

After testing him against the short ball, Hastings surprised him with a yorker, which splattered his stumps, then Gareth Berg played back and edged to second slip.

Hampshire were still six behind on 206 for eight when Devon-born debut boy Ryan Stevenson went in and was dumped on his backside by the second ball he faced, a Hastings bouncer.

But it quickly became obvious that he could bat and he confidently made 30 of the 44 added for the last two wickets.

He had already shown his capabilities when Ervine rashly slogged across a straight ball and was bowled for 47 to give James Weighell his maiden first-class wicket.

When Rushworth took the new ball both the last pair skied chances to mid-on, where Weighell dropped Fidel Edwards before catching the more difficult chance offered by Stevenson off the next ball.

Hastings finished with four for 49, his best figures since the win at Worcester in June.

As in the first innings, Durham swiftly lost their top three. Jack Burnham was missed at second slip by Dawson on four, the ball going to the boundary, only to offer the same fielder another chance without addition.

Stoneman sliced a drive to gully and Borthwick dropped his bat in disbelief when Smith clung on to his fierce cut.

Richardson was bowled by a shooter from Edwards which barely left the deck, bringing in Muchall to join Paul Collingwood on 56 for four.

They had added 16 when the pressure was relieved by the introduction of Stevenson, who was hit for three fours in his first over by Muchall.

But just when it seemed they might see out a darkening day Collingwood was given out lbw for 37, pushing forward to McLaren. Then Muchall went for 32, a thick edge off Edwards flying straight to Smith.

Despite the gloom, the West Indian paceman tested Weighell with some short stuff before bad light ended play.