Tougher graft lies ahead - Smith

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Mark Davies & Will Smith

Will Smith, right, discusses fields with Mark Davies on Friday, a "great" day for Durham in an otherwise tough opening match

Durham captain Will Smith admits the hard-earned opening draw against promoted Essex at the Riverside was a “wake-up call” for the dual champions.

Durham found themselves four for two following on, 286 runs behind shortly before tea yesterday.

But a record third-wicket stand between Michael Di Venuto and Dale Benkenstein, half-centuries from Ian Blackwell and Phil Mustard, who finished 60 not out, combined with 34 overs lost to bad weather saw them sneak a stalemate.

Even so, Smith did not dodge the issue that an LV= County Championship Division One season in which Durham are going for a third successive title could easily have started on a more encouraging note.

“We’re under no illusions whatsoever. We’ve worked very hard for two years to win it - and we know we’re going to have to work even harder again,” he said.

“Everyone as an individual and a team has to improve; otherwise, you’ll fall behind - because others will improve past you.

“In a way, this has probably been a bit of a wake-up call and has reinforced that.”

Smith believes Durham would have done just enough, even without the intervention of rain and bad light, to stop Essex winning their second successive match.

“Obviously the weather helped us a little bit, but I would have backed us to carry on and bat out the day.

“I said to the guys this morning that sometimes getting a draw out of games like this shows just as much character as it does turning a drawing position into a win.

“Sometimes when you are in adversity it takes an even stronger character to stand up.

“We know we have those strong characters around, but it was pleasing to see the rearguard action.”

Chief among those perhaps are the ultra-reliable pair, Di Venuto and Benkenstein, who first bailed out the hosts from a hugely unpromising position.

Jaik Mickleburgh & Phil Mustard

Smith reserved high praise for Essex batsman Jaik Mickleburgh, who played "brilliantly" to thwart Durham's attack

“Obviously it’s not ideal - we’d like to be in a winning position - but you’ve got to make the best of what you’re given, and sadly after three days we found ourselves in that position but then fought pretty hard today,” added Smith.

“Today and day two were great. Sadly day one and day three were probably the key days - and we ‘lost’ those.

“We should have been a bit smarter and made sure that, when we do lose a wicket, the next partnership is really vital and make sure we get two guys in again - which sadly never happened for five or six wickets.

“We had them 100 for four, and in the past we’d have turned that 100 for four sometimes into 160 or 170 all out. But this time, we let it slip.

“But to be fair to James Foster and Jaik Mickleburgh, they played brilliantly.”

Smith conceded Essex, who beat Hampshire in their first game, had shown all the signs of being significant top-flight adversaries.

Asked if they may be a team to challenge for honours this summer, he said: “If they play a similar kind of cricket, definitely.

“They played some really good cricket over these four days, and obviously did in their first game against Hampshire too - when they played great four-day cricket, stayed in the game all the way down to the last session, then look what happened then.

“They’ve got some good cricketers. If they can have the (Alastair) Cooks and (Ravi) Boparas available for a few more games, that will surely help them.

“But they’ve got a good squad, seem to have built it up over the last few years in one-day cricket - and are developing into a good four-day side. They played really, really good cricket here.”

Smith does not subscribe to the simplistic reading of Durham’s two back-to-back titles that they are miles better than everyone else.

They have dug deep for their success, he explains, and will do so again.

“I don’t see it that we are always the dominant team everyone has to look out for. Every team was a decent team last year, and will be again this.

“It’s just that we played consistently good, tough cricket last year - which saw us through. We’ll have to do exactly the same this year if we want to go anywhere near repeating it.”

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