Alex Hughes ended a lean run with his first century of the season to give Derbyshire the edge on the third day of the Division Two match against Durham at Chesterfield.
Hughes had scored only one 50 in the county championship this summer but he found form at the right time as his 108 out of 214 set Durham 282 for victory.
Paul Coughlin had made an unbeaten 73 in Durham’s first innings 301 before he and Chris Rushworth blew away Derbyshire’s top order but Hughes led a recovery and at the close, the visitors were 36 without loss with an intriguing final day in prospect.
Durham had started day three needing to limit Derbyshire’s lead as much as possible and Coughlin and Barry McCarthy took their ninth wicket stand to 90 in 26 overs before Gurjit Sandhu wrapped up the innings with the second new ball by trapping McCarthy and Rushworth lbw in consecutive overs.
But a lead of 67 was still a handy one on a pitch where the bounce was likely to become increasingly variable although it was Durham who threatened to take control when Rushworth and Coughlin reduced the hosts to 31 for 3.
Rushworth struck with the third ball of the innings by having Ben Slater caught at first slip and Coughlin found some late inswing to pluck out Billy Godleman’s off stump.
When Wayne Madsen edged Rushworth behind, Durham sensed the door was opening but Hughes, first with Luis Reece and then with Matt Critchley, closed it again.
Derbyshire’s lead was past 150 when Reece was caught on the crease by Coughlin and Durham’s inability to build sustained pressure allowed Hughes and Critchley to add 52 in 16 overs.
Hughes has struggled for runs this season but he found the right combination of watchfulness and aggression to ensure Durham’s target would be a testing one.
To their credit, Durham’s inexperienced attack plugged away and they had another opportunity when three wickets fell in eight balls, one to a fine low catch at first slip by Paul Collingwood who, at 41, remains an outstanding fielder.
But just as he had in the first innings, Gurjit Sandhu frustrated his former colleagues as another 47 runs were added and Hughes deservedly completed the third century of his career with his 15th four before he failed to dispatch Ryan Pringle into the trees.
Time was not a factor for Durham but the 17 overs before the close was potentially a defining passage in the game and Michael Richardson and Cameron Steel came through unscathed to reduce the target to 246.