Hildreth's sixth drives Somerset
Somerset 392 for 7 v Hampshire 284
Few batsman can have been monitored for so long without drawing conclusive judgement as James Hildreth, who has been tracked by England's selectorial radar for the full seven years of his professional career yet still remains neither selected nor discarded.
His only senior representative cricket so far has been an England Lions tour to India in 2008, when he played five innings against regional teams and top scored with a modest 43. Others have done better and subsequently disappeared but not so Hildreth, whose description by Justin Langer, his former Somerset captain, as being possessed of "an extraordinary talent" was not made lightly.
Then again, Langer is not the only respected judge to hold that view. Ever since, six years ago, in only his second first-class match, Hildreth made a century against a Durham attack containing Shoaib Akhtar at somewhere near his peak, he has been carrying a substantial weight of expectation and the faith of his admirers in his capacity to fulfil his potential has not wavered.
All that has been lacking is consistency but now perhaps that nut has been cracked. On a glorious afternoon here, in wonderful contrast to the depressing drizzle of the day before, he made an unbeaten 128, his sixth Championship hundred of the season and his fifth in the last seven matches. The frustration of last year, when he scored a triple-hundred in the opening match but failed to make his 1,000 for the season, has been banished.
It is a run that might persuade the England selectors that he should be in discussions at least when the shape of the Ashes squads are debated. In the top division, only Adam Lyth has more runs and he has more hundreds now than Michael Carberry, who led the way previously.
Hildreth was the driving force here as Somerset set about the difficult task of trying to engineer a result from a match hit by the weather. Hampshire, who had a threadbare attack weakened further as Dominic Cork and Sean Ervine struggled with back injuries, are not likely to offer them a target, so it is down to Somerset to give themselves a decent lead and time for their bowlers to take 10 wickets. With that in mind, they will look most towards Murali Kartik, their in-form left-arm spinner.
Hildreth paced his innings in accordance with this plan, scoring 50 off 77 balls, 100 off 143. By the close, Somerset's lead was 108. Should they be able to add to that quickly on the final morning, they may still have scope to force a win that, really, is essential if they are to remain live contenders for the title.
At first, Hampshire looked to be gaining the upper hand, however. The left-armer James Tomlinson, to whom much of the seamers' workload fell, added to the wicket of Marcus Trescothick late on Tuesday by dismissing nightwatchman Alfonso Thomas and opener Arul Suppiah via catches in the slips, at which point Somerset were 60 for 3.
They missed a major opportunity, however, when Craig Kieswetter was dropped by James Vince at first slip off Ervine, before he had scored a run. Kieswetter made Hampshire pay for the mistake, helping Zander de Bruyn add 65 of their 68-run partnership before he drove Tomlinson, who ended with 5 for 78, to Michael Lumb at extra cover for 43. Lumb had been in the wars himself, taking a blow on the foot when fielding at silly point, and Hampshire face an anxious couple of days ahead of Twenty20 finals day before they know who is fit to be considered.
De Bruyn found his rhythm during a stand of 155 with Hildreth but he missed out on a hundred, attempting to reverse sweep left-arm spinner Danny Briggs on 95 only to be bowled. Briggs might have landed another blow had Michael Bates, the rookie Hampshire wicketkeeper, not spurned a chance to stump Hildreth in the 90s.
So stretched were Hampshire's resources that their physio, Craig DeWeymarn, had to spend the final session on the field as a second substitute fielder, confusing the public by wearing Cork's shirt. The real Cork had to withdraw after bowling one ball after lunch. Ervine also disappeared into the dressing rooms, although with Dan Christian wearing his sweater his absence also might have eluded spectators. Hampshire supporters will not want imposters in their place on Saturday.