Colchester (second day): Essex 282 and 10-0 v Worcestershire 258
Having showed plenty of character with the ball given their depleted resources, Worcestershire’s Gareth Batty and Ben Smith led the way with the bat to keep alive their team’s chances of winning.
The visitors’ failure to build meaningful partnerships at the top of the order has severely hampered such an outcome but a plucky half-century by the off-spinner at least kept his side in touch.
Batty, at his belligerent best, was a joy, and his 60 (102 balls, seven fours, two sixes) was controlled, stoical and, above all, timely.
An earlier innings of 74 by Smith (125 balls, 10 fours) helped rescue Worcestershire from 60 for three before Batty led the recovery from 167 for six.
One suspects that a healthy lead was expected but, in trailing by 24 at the close, much now depends on the sprint finish.
In Worcestershire’s case, given the under-strength seam attack at Vikram Solanki’s disposal due to the injuries of Matt Mason and Simon Jones, that roughly translates as Kabir Ali.
He was in action early in the day, mopping up Danish Kaneria, who became Steve Davies’s fourth victim of the innings, with only 13 added to the overnight score.
Ryan ten Doeschate, the architect of Essex’s revival on the first day, was - agonisingly - left stranded on 95 (102 balls, 17 fours) with his third championship century there for the taking.
Worcestershire’s batsmen did not follow ten Doeschate’s lead, which was to play postively but selectively, something which has come naturally to them in recent matches.
The two leading batsmen in the competition, Solanki and Stephen Moore, were dismissed with neither of them wreaking their usual havoc.
The captain was caught behind from his second ball without scoring and the in-form opener was snaffled at first slip by Jason Gallian trying to smear Graham Napier through the covers – again – when looking tidy having scored 20.
Daryl Mitchell’s departure sparked an early lunch after he prodded to silly point off the first delivery bowled by Kaneria.
But it was the wicket of Smith, the ball before tea was taken, that proved most crucial to Worcestershire’s chance of taking a winning lead in this match.
Smith’s gritty three-hour innings (125 balls, ten fours) looked as if it might turn the tide in the visitors’ favour.
But, after being dropped by Kaneria on 54 and injuring the spinner for the season in the process, a double bonus in the context of this match, he fell to a sharp catch at short leg off James Middlebrook.
He had been supported earlier by Graeme Hick, who looked in fine touch for 34 until cutting to point in the air.
Davies then offered hope. The wicketkeeper, as is his way, appeared totally comfortable before fashioning his usual elaborate dismissal.
This time it came via a crisply-hit drive. Ten Doeschate was prowling at short extra cover and the Holland international took a fine catch.
Essex’s fielding, particularly their catching, was excellent but Worcestershire’s batsmen didn’t help themselves.
This is not the strongest of county attacks on paper, given the absence of the dropped Tony Paladino, the released Alex Tudor and the injured Maurice Chambers, but five of Essex’s bowlers took wickets and Kaneria, their biggest threat, managed only five overs before breaking his finger in his abject attempt to get rid of Smith.
He will not bowl again in this match, perhaps for the season – the Pakistan leg-spinner’s injury was revealed following a hospital visit and he will require an operation - which could prove the best piece of news for Worcestershire seeing as they will bat last.
If they can restrict Essex with the ball they will fancy their chances of not making the same mistakes again with the bat.
All-rounder Napier shared the new ball and may have hit speeds approaching 90mph, something he apparently manages quite frequently according to his many admirers at Colchester. They were full of information.
The stocky all-rounder was also offered a professional football contract at Ipswich Town as a goalkeeper but chose cricket because he felt he had a better chance of making a good living.
He may well surpass his own expectations given his propensity for big-hitting in the Twenty20 format. But as an front-line seamer in the championship one would have thought the strongest side in the division should have managed his bowling better, however slippery it is.
This was a fairly dull day’s cricket but it has set up a fascinating conclusion.
* Worcestershire’s four-day, rain-hit Second XI Championship match against Warwickshire at New Road ended in a draw, writes Brian O’Sullivan.
Resuming their first innings on 105 for two in reply to 174, Worcestershire reached 283, Jack Manuel scoring 75 and Joe Leach 64, with pace bowler Andrew Miller taking four for 37 off 15 overs. Warwickshire were 53 for three off 18 overs when play ended at 5pm.