Ryan ten Doeschate and James Foster hit centuries as Essex complied 640-9, their highest score for nine years, before four late wickets put them in a great position to push for a final day win against Northamptonshire, if the Wantage Road weather allows.
Captains past and present combined to share a seventh wicket stand of 215, an Essex record against Northants, ten Doeschate making 140 and Foster 113, before both fell in consecutive balls as the visitors eventually declared with lead of 196.
Matt Quinn then took two wickets as Northants slipped to 51-4, eventually adding a further five runs by the close, but the weather could come to their aid on Tuesday, with rain forecast throughout the final day.
With only 19 overs remaining in the day, and after the combined first innings totalled over 1,000 runs on a Wantage Road pitch offering little in the way of assistance, a draw looked a formality, but Essex had other ideas, Ravi Bopara and Ashar Zaidi also taking a wicket.
Northants stand-in captain Josh Cobb admitted the seventh wicket stand had taken the game away from his side, but having completed a successful rear-guard at Bristol last week, is backing his side to do so again, with a slice of assistance from the weather.
“That partnership between ten Doeschate and Foaster was an exceptional partnership,” he said. “They ran between the wickets, they put our bowlers and our fielders under pressure; hats off to those two for the way they played.
“They just got away from us this afternoon. If we’d taken a couple of wickets, and the score was a bit closer, we might not have found ourselves under the pressure we found ourselves under tonight.
“That partnership’s ended up giving them a good solid lead and it’s never easy batting for 19 overs having fielded for 150. The wickets either kept low or were reasonable balls, there weren’t too many loose shots but those things can happen after what’s been a long two days.
“We’ve still got Steven Crook, who did the same thing last week. We’ve got plenty of batting left on what’s still a good wicket; the odd one is keeping a bit low but it’s still a very good wicket, so we’ll be backing ourselves to save the game and if there’s any weather around that can always help as well.”
Before ten Doeschate and Foster dominated the afternoon session, Tom Westley and Ravi Bopara both made half centuries, resuming 274-2 and taking their overnight partnership to 122 as Northants failed to find a breakthrough with the new ball.
The hosts’ catching let them down once more though as Westley was dropped early in the day, David Murphy failing to hang onto a low chance, with Westley going on to pass 800 first class runs this season before falling for 69, glancing Gleeson down the leg side.
Dan Lawrence had an early life as Steven Crook shelled another catch at third slip, but Crook made amends as he bowled the following over and trapped Bopara LBW for 58.
When Lawrence was run out by Josh Cobb’s direct hit from mid-off with Essex 357-5, Northants had arguably shaded the morning session, but the second session would go almost entirely the visitors ways as they racked up 215 runs for the loss of Zaidi.
Zaidi himself played a breezy innings of 35 before Northants policy of bowling short at him eventually brought reward, as Olly Stone found a top edge to take a return catch himself.
However, that simply allowed skipper ten Doeschate, and the man he replaced at the start of the campaign, to make hay. The Northants bowlers grew more and more dispirited as the partnership went on, scoring at over a run a ball throughout, the pair targeting the spin of Monty Panesar and Rob Keogh, both hitting a brace of sixes, although Foster was dropped at cover by Sanderson off Panesar.
They passed the previous seventh wicket record against Northants, held by Foster himself alongside Mark Pettini only last September, and passed 200, bringing up their respective centuries – the 22nd for both in first-class cricket, ten Doeschate in 106 balls whilst Foster needed only 85.
It needed a second run out to break their stand, Steven Crook the man at mid-off to deny ten Doeschate a quick single. From Richard Gleeson’s next delivery, Foster got a thick outside edge that carried all the way to Panesar at third man, Crook then having Quinn caught behind as Essex declared on their highest total since the 700-9d against Nottinghamshire in 2007.
Northants were left with 19 overs to bat, but the hosts were quickly in trouble as Rob Newton was trapped LBW by Matt Quinn in the third over without score.
Ben Duckett and Keogh saw out the next seven overs but the latter’s dismissal, LBW to Bopara, was the first of three wickets in 20 balls. Cobb was then bowled first ball by a Quinn delivery that perhaps stayed a bit low, before Zaidi was brought on and his first delivery saw Duckett loop a simple catch to leg slip.
Nightwatchman Ben Sanderson saw out the final six overs alongside Adam Rossington, but the hosts will likely require an intervention from nature if they are to avoid a second defeat to Essex this season.