Intriguing contest set up at Chelmsford
Essex’s LV= County Championship Division Two clash with Hampshire remained in the balance despite Graham Napier and David Masters impressing on the second day at Chelmsford.
After Napier had top-scored with 74 and guided Essex to a first-innings total of 254 - a lead of 57 - Masters removed the Hampshire openers cheaply.
Liam Dawson and George Bailey then began a recovery effort by putting on an unbroken 56, taking Hampshire to 77 for two, 20 ahead.
Alastair Cook, with a gritty 59 spanning over four hours, and Tim Phillips, who was left unbeaten on 40, were the other main contributors to the home side’s total.
After resuming on 72 for five, Essex made painstaking progress during the morning session, scoring a further 72 runs while losing Ben Foakes and James Foster.
Cook, displaying the kind of patience and determination on which he has built his reputation, added a further 27 to his overnight 25 in the pre-lunch action to move past 50 in his first knock this season.
When the England skipper departed soon after the restart, an lbw victim of paceman James Tomlinson, Essex were still 41 adrift with only two wickets remaining.
But any hopes Hampshire may have entertained of gaining a slender lead soon evaporated.
Napier and Phillips saw to that with a stand of 87, the highest of the match so far. In his usual forthright manner, Napier was soon dispatching spinner Danny Briggs for a leg-side six while also finding three boundaries with delicate late cuts.
Phillips was initially content to pick up singles and feed his partner the strike, but later unleashed some fine drives as Essex went on to gain a useful lead.
Napier was finally undone by the second new ball, trapped leg before by Chris Wood.
Reece Topley stayed long enough to secure Essex a second batting point, after which he provided Briggs with his third success and left Phillips stranded.
Just how significant the efforts of Napier and Phillips were soon became apparent when Hampshire set out to clear the arrears.
Masters raced in to remove the openers in the space of three deliveries. With the last ball of his fifth over, he saw Foakes take a magnificent catch at short-leg to get rid of Michael Carberry. The paceman then trapped Jimmy Adams lbw with the second delivery of his next set of six.
Dawson and Bailey, however, held firm to deny Essex further success and leave things beautifully poised.