Muralitharan the ideal support for Atherton and Hegg
Essex have a tough battle to avoid the follow-on in their CricInfo Championship match against Lancashire after centuries from Warren Hegg and Mike Atherton put the home side in a formidable position.
After Atherton had eventually gone for 160, Hegg moved on to 133 to allow Lancashire to post 431, their highest total of the season.
Essex then slumped to 101 for four, still 181 short of saving the follow-on, with Muttiah Muralitharan claiming the impressive figures of two for 16 from 18 overs.
Peter Martin had made the first breakthrough, bowling Paul Grayson with a beauty.
But then Murali took over with the wickets of Darren Robinson and Richard Clinton, although Clinton had grafted 39 overs for 25 on his second Championship appearance.
Essex skipper Ronnie Irani then drove a return catch to Gary Keedy just before the close to give the left-arm spinner his first Championship wicket of the season, and leave the visitors relying heavily on Stuart Law, unbeaten on 47.
Law owed Essex a few runs as despite taking three slip catches, including Atherton off the debutant left arm spinner Michael Davies, he had also dropped difficult chances offered by Hegg on 57 and 92.
The wicket-keeper capitalised with his second century in three Championship innings, following a match-winning unbeaten 107 at Northampton earlier this month.
He faced a total of 242 balls and hit 15 fours and a six before falling an agonising single short of his career best, caught behind off the persevering Ashley Cowan, who ended with decent figures of three for 65 from 25.4 overs.
Such ended with three for 124 from 45, and Davies claimed three for 121 in 34 - an encouraging debut in difficult circumstances.