Essex ready if Northants slip - Grayson
Kent 107 (Masters 6-41) and 215 for 7 (Northeast 70, Stevens 67, Panesar 4-49) drew with Essex 276 (Shah 84, Foakes 58, Davies 4-67)
In the end, the two hours that Mother Nature afforded Essex were not enough for them to secure the victory they deserved, one that would have put them just eight points behind second-placed Northamptonshire. That deficit could have been further reduced in the penultimate round of Division Two matches next week to set up a thrilling finale to a season already spoiling us for twists and turns.
Instead, the difference is 21, although Kent, the team saved by the weather, could still make things interesting if they were to achieve an improbable win at Wantage Road next week.
Essex's coach, Paul Grayson, was understandably disappointed that rain limited the window available for his side to finish off their good work. He called for his team to maintain focus ahead of hosting Glamorgan next week. "If Northants do slip up, we'll be in the right place to make the most of it," he said.
Watchful with the bat and superior with the ball throughout, the visitors displayed a ruthlessness that few have matched in either division this season. The three pace bowlers, David Masters, Reece Topley and Graham Napier, along with Monty Panesar - who Grayson would like to bring to Chelmsford on a full-time basis - have the look of a top-tier attack. Quite rightly, Grayson was keen to extend that tag to the entire XI that started at Canterbury, championing an experienced and dynamic batting line-up.
Since the ignominy of their collapse for 20 against Lancashire at Chelmsford in early June, Essex have rallied impressively to put together a six-match unbeaten run, featuring wins against Leicestershire (twice) and Worcestershire. All this, while making FLt20 Finals Day and finishing second in the strongest competitive YB40 group - missing out on the semi-finals by a solitary point.
"By that period, we had our lads back from the IPL, so we get that nice group of players back together," Grayson said. "We know we've got the quality and eventually found a nice rhythm to our game.
"We took a bit of criticism at the start of the season, and rightly so because we didn't play well enough. But we've stuck together as a group and we've played some very good four-day cricket of late; the bowlers have been exceptional and the younger players like Jaik Mickleburgh and Ben Foakes have come to the fore to support the more experienced players, too."
There was some cause for regret here, as Grayson saw his side drop Darren Stevens twice on his way to a half-century that put Kent into the lead and took valuable overs out of the game. "It's a really important area we've got to work on - we're very aware of that," Grayson said. "It doesn't help that we don't have a settled slip cordon, but throughout the season we've put down a couple of vital chances that could have changed things for us."
Essex needed just six wickets, and maybe a few second-innings runs, to wrap up victory but a fine-yet-steady downpour throughout the morning meant the only cricket played before 3.30pm was in the respective changing rooms. Play was due to be called off at 1.30pm but, just minutes before the umpires took to the field to read the game its last rites, the rain stopped.
After Napier completed the over he started on Friday, he was immediately replaced at the Nackington Road End by Topley. Two balls in, he had Sam Northeast lbw for 70, two days after he opened the second innings.
He then had a second, by the same mode, five overs later when Geraint Jones was trapped in his crease for the second time in this match. But between Topley's brace, Ryan ten Doeschate gave Stevens his first reprieve off the bowling of Masters.
By the time Stevens' had received his second - again off Masters - he had passed 1000 first class runs for the season, given Kent the lead and crossed fifty. A regular tormenter of Essex - he has five hundreds against them - he revelled in his role as wet blanket, picking off runs past the infield, as Foster pulled his men up to coax a wicket.
However, it was an error from Stevens that let Essex back in, when he hit Panesar straight to Owais Shah at extra cover, at which point Kent had a lead of 26. A handful of half-chances came and went but at 5.12 pm, with 25 minutes of official play left, hands were shaken.
Ravi Bopara will return to the Essex side for the final two fixtures, against Glamorgan and away to Hampshire. Grayson is also due for talks with ten Doeschate and the Essex management over the allrounder's participation in the Champions League Twenty20 with New Zealand side Otago. It was originally agreed that he would go to the competition when it was mathematically impossible for Essex to catch Northamptonshire. There will be no return for Alastair Cook, however, with Grayson stating that the ECB have him on prescribed R&R ahead of the winter's Ashes commitments.