Essex bid ends in bafflement
Essex 207 (Coles 6-71) and 44 for 0 trail Hampshire 456 (Carberry 85, Wheater 122, Vince 82, Smith 5-58) by 205 runs
Essex's funny season produced one final baffling episode as they meekly surrendered their chance of promotion at the Ageas Bowl. Their prospects of overhauling Northamptonshire were slim but their effort betrayed the opportunity.
Far from mounting a convincing case for promotion, Essex were made to follow-on and it was evident that Hampshire were the more motivated of the two teams. Bowled out with only one batting bonus point, Essex failed to apply any pressure on Northamptonshire, easing the burden of their tricky task at New Road.
Did Essex genuinely believe they could win promotion this week? In announcing a weakened XI for this match, the club website - a medium where the view of Dr Pangloss is always aired - stated: "Although promotion is still a mathematical possibility, the likelihood is that Northamptonshire will retain their current second position." Far from eternal optimism.
Owais Shah - who has announced his retirement from first-class cricket - and Ravi Bopara - whose contract expires at the end of the season - would surely have given Essex a better chance to obtain maximum batting points, which became a requirement after Northamptonshire claimed a batting point of their own against Worcestershire.
David Masters and Reece Topley, with 99 wickets between them in the Championship this season, would also have been invaluable - particularly when James Foster chose to bowl first, hoping to extract the best out of a wicket with some grass left on it. Bowling first also denied Monty Panesar - and indeed Greg Smith who took 5 for 58 in Hampshire's innings - the chance to bowl in the last innings, although they will now do so if Essex can erase the first-innings deficit of 249. They made a solid start following-on but should have lost Gautam Gambhir, badly dropped at second slip shortly before rain arrived to curtail the day.
Essex's head coach, Paul Grayson, insisted he had a side capable of winning the game, which was true, particularly given Hampshire's poor record in the Championship this season. But a batting performance that lacked application did his comments no favours. They were bustled out by Matt Coles, whose 6 for 71 was the second five-wicket haul of his brief Hampshire loan spell.
The extra bounce he generated proved a fierce weapon; Ben Foakes gloved a lifter to first slip, Foster couldn't control a hook and was caught a deep square leg and debutant Kishen Velani failed to deal with a short ball and popped up a catch to cover on the stroke of tea.
It was the performance of a man playing for a contract and rebuilding his reputation. He was quick and at times hostile. He hit the gloves of Michael Bates hard - Bates enjoying a rare Championship match having stepped aside for Adam Wheater when he joined from Essex at the start of the season.
But further up the order, Essex were guilty of some loose strokes that were particularly irresponsible given their weakened line up. Jaik Mickleburgh played an overconfident straight drive and lost his middle stump; Gambhir flashed at a wide one to be caught behind and Smith totally lost patience with a probing James Tomlinson after lunch and pulled off the splice of the bat to mid-on.
With those three dismissals - for a combined 45 runs - Essex's chance of promotion disappeared and consigned them to a fourth consecutive year in Division Two. Is it the expected return from a season where they were bowled out for 20 in the Championship and booed off in a Twenty20 by their own fans? Or is it a disappointment from a campaign that included a trip to Friends Life t20 Finals Day and a strong run in the Yorkshire Bank 40? No county does chalk and cheese like Essex.
No county also sees so many players leave the club and progress. They can be forgiven for losing Adam Wheater - Foster and Ben Foakes are two fine wicketkeepers - but his run-a-ball 122 would surely have brought pangs of disappointment that they could not have persuaded Wheater to remain at Chelmsford as a batsman.
Indeed, Wheater's future at Hampshire could be purely as a batsman. Although Wheater makes few mistakes behind the stumps, to not utilise Bates is a badly wasted resource. It may even free Wheater up. He has failed to turn a good season into a great one, disappointing in favourable conditions. But the potential for him to develop into a top-order batsman is there, such is his range of strokes and timing shown here in zipping from his overnight 82 in the first hour of play.
Alex Winter is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here.