Topley's best spurs on Essex challenge
Essex 199 for 4 (Smith 94) lead Worcestershire 102 (Topley 6-29) by 97 runs
Essex find themselves in a commanding position at Chelmsford, having bowled Worcestershire out for 102 - their lowest score of the season, to date. That was thanks to 6 for 29 from Reece Topley, who responded to criticisms of his red-ball prowess with his career best figures.
He was boisterous at stumps, talking up Essex's promotion challenge after a first day that already sees them on the cusp of a first innings lead of 100. Trailing second-placed Northamptonshire by 44 points with a game in hand, they must feel that victory is essential here.
Topley is certainly capable of spells faster than he produced today - not that he did not hurry those unlucky enough to face him - but he displayed impeccable control, as Essex systematically worked their way through Worcestershire's consistent left-right combinations: a combination that occurred through circumstance rather than design, it must be said.
His natural arc of the ball, starting from all of eight feet, cut naturally in to the right-hander and away from the left. But it was his variation of length that allowed him to reap the benefits of pushing the batsmen back as he enjoyed success with some superb full balls. Five of his six wickets came from pitched up, swinging deliveries that either found the outside edge, the pad - both in Jack Shantry's case - or off-stump.
He was gifted a wicket by Joe Leach, who failed to get on top of the bounce when he attempted to hook immediately after lunch, with Ryan ten Doeschate taking a routine catch at mid-wicket.
His best delivery of the day brought only misfortune. Having removed Tom Fell the ball before, he produced the perfect outswinger to Ross Whiteley who couldn't help but follow it. Owais Shah had to dive to his left at first slip, but it really should have been taken.
Topley eventually got Whiteley for his sixth, as five Worcestershire wickets fell for just 13 runs. Alan Richardson and Dan Lucas combined to take the score into triple figures, before the innings was closed by a stupendous catch from Graham Napier at deep mid-on, Lucas slapping what looked to be a flat-six over his head, only for Napier to time a dive backwards to perfection, sticking his right-hand out to clutch the ball safely.
In reply, Essex were one wicket down in the third over, as Nick Browne was bowled after defending a ball from Richardson which then spun back and hit off stump hard enough to dislodge the bail.
But the Worcestershire attack could not build on that early good fortune, as Greg Smith came to the middle and quelled any potential resistance with an innings of high quality.
He has played some fine knocks this year, in both the long and short forms of the game, and this must match any of them for fluency and clarity of shots. From a perfectly stable base, his drives echoed around Chelmsford, as a sizeable crowd enjoyed an evening session littered with boundaries.
His approach eventually rubbed off on opener Jaik Mickelburgh, who went through the last 26 runs of his fifty with six fours, as they put on 158 in 33.2 overs together. And yet, it could have all been so much better for Essex had they not conspired to give away three wickets before the day was up.
Mickelburgh top-edged to slip after trying to paddle Moeen Ali's off spin around the corner, before Smith could not resist trying to clear Richardson at a three-quarters mid-on, to the same bowler.
Shah can be forgiven for his demise; leaving a delivery from Richardson on a fifth stump line that jagged back in nastily and hitting him in front, having offered no shot. It was one of the few balls to do anything out of the ordinary.
Ten Doeschate gave us a taster for what to expect tomorrow when he planted Ali down the ground for six and the smeared him to midwicket for four - in the last over of the day, no less. A convincing win with full batting and bowling points is well within reach, and is a necessity if Essex are to catch Northants for that second promotion spot.