Worcestershire trail Durham by 229 runs with nine wickets in hand
For any hardy Worcestershire souls prepared to stick it out to the end of a gloomy, overcast, rain-affected day, there was a sight to silence all the cynics last night.
Shoaib Akhtar, the Pakistani pace bowler, was performing on the New Road outfield for the first time clad in a Worcestershire shirt and looks like being available to play sooner than expected.
Admittedly, it is at least a fortnight before the 'Rawalpindi Express' will enjoy a first run-out for his fourth English county. He was operating with a big white ball at his feet rather than the more familiar small red one in his hands in the customary end- of- day warm-down.
But it was still time to consider what he might achieve at Worcestershire this summer, by way of comparison with who he will replace as the second of the county's two permitted overseas players, Chaminda Vaas.
Vaas will leave earlier than expected, after the totesport League match against Essex on June 19, to follow new Sri Lanka coach Tom Moody to Colombo before next month's Test series against the West Indies.
Shoaib will spend a month acclimatising himself and working on his fitness following injury but Worcestershire are strongly tempted to persuade their eye-catching signing to be included straightaway.
If Shoaib is fit and available, he can be used in all of the county's eight Twenty20 Cup qualification group matches, a particularly exciting proposition given that the first Twenty20 opponents are Warwickshire on June 22.
Worcestershire's chief executive Mark Newton said: "We've been talking to Shoaib for a few weeks. And he decided he'd simply like to come over early to prepare.
"But we have already made provision that, if he was available, then there would be no problem with him playing in the Twenty20." Sri Lankan left-armer Vaas, meanwhile, has rapidly become a favourite in his six weeks here and Shoaib will do well to match his strike rate.
After the first day's play against Durham was lost to rain, Vaas wasted no time in getting things moving for Worcestershire yesterday, bagging two leg-before decisions inside the first hour.
One was the key wicket of another Test player, New Zealand's Nathan Astle, on his Durham debut at firstclass level. On top of a smart piece of fielding at fine leg to run out Gareth Breese, Vaas added a third wicket when he had Durham's other overseas debutant Ashley Nosske caught at second slip.
Vaas's 20 Championship wickets in only his fifth match is a haul bettered among Worcestershire bowlers on duty yesterday by Matt Mason.
Australian-born but holding a British passport, the consistent Mason already looks on course for another 'personal best' this season after adding two more scalps to make it 27 for this Championship campaign.
England one-day hopeful Kabir Ali also weighed in with a three-wicket haul. That all added up to an impressive performance by Worcestershire as they dismissed Durham for fewer than the Division Two leaders might have bargained for after they had won the toss.
After Vaas's double early blow, Worcestershire struck twice in successive overs a quarter of an hour before lunch.
The introduction of offspinner Ray Price tempted England one-day specialist Paul Collingwood to lob an attempted drive to Vaas at mid on before Gordon Muchall was brilliantly caught behind by Jamie Pipe.
Stand-in skipper Dale Benkenstin was bowled by Kabir shortly after lunch before Mason moved one away from Nicky Peng to offer Pipe a more routine catch.
At 141 for six Durham might have been wondering whether they would obtain any batting bonus points. But stands of 44 for the seventh wicket between Breese and the flamboyant Phil Mustard, and 35 for the ninth wicket between Noffke and Liam Plunkett saw them to two batting points when they reached 250.
Bad light forced the players off at 5pm but despite no real noticable improvement they returned 45 minutes later for an eventful close to the day.
Kabir finished off the innings by removing Durham's No 10 Plunkett, their second-highest scorer with 37 (bettered only by the 39 by No 8 Mustard).
That left the home side with eight overs to negotiate before the close.
Sadly, in the fourth of those, Worcestershire's 18-year-old debutant, locallyborn Steven Davies, got an edge to a ball from Noffke and was caught behind.
Worcestershire still had, up their sleeve, run-machine Graeme Hick, who scored 315 not out on his last Championship appearance against Durham at New Road three years ago. But, wisely, with a nightwatchman of the talent of Pipe at Worcestershire's disposal, the great man was held back.