Bresnan epic sets up final-day drama
Middlesex 270 and 81 for 2 trail Yorkshire 390 (Bresnan 142*, Rafiq 65, Hodd 64, Roland-Jones 4-73) by 39 runs
And so, after six months and 16 games, after memorable fightbacks and outstanding performances, it goes down to the last day of the season.
There were moments on the penultimate day when it seemed both Yorkshire and Middlesex were falling back into the pack. But while Yorkshire emerged just about on top - Nick Gubbins' sustained excellence continues to keep his side's head above water in this game - it is not impossible to envisage a scenario whereby Middlesex could still win.
If they are able to bat until tea - and somehow score some runs against an unrelenting attack - and set a demanding target (perhaps 220 off 32 overs), Yorkshire will have little option other than to pursue it. Neither of these teams has come this far to be consoled by prize money and both these teams know that a draw is no use to either of them. It is all or nothing now.
If Yorkshire do go on to clinch their third successive title - the first team to do so since the Yorkshire team of 1968 - they will owe a huge amount to Tim Bresnan. When he walked to the crease on the second afternoon, Yorkshire were 32 for 3 with their title hopes hanging by a thread. By the time he was done - seven-and-a-half hours later - he had not only helped his side to the vital fourth batting bonus point they required to ensure they could finish ahead of Somerset, but earned them a 120-run first innings lead.
Bresnan is a pretty decent embodiment of Yorkshire Man. His batting is pragmatic rather than pretty; his bowling is relentless rather than flash. He could hardly be more no-nonsense, quietly reliable and undemonstratively excellent. In this game, when his side needed it most, he has bowled better than anyone - largely without reward - and produced the innings that could prove crucial.
It was surely fitting that it was a partnership with Ryan Sidebottom, another man steeped in Yorkshire cricket, that took their side to the crucial fourth batting point that kept their hopes alive. By the time the ninth-wicket fell - Jack Brooks chipping to mid-on - there were still 16 runs required.
But, single by single, scamper by nudge, they inched Yorkshire ever closer. There were many nervous moments. Twice Sidebottom jabbed his bat down to keep out well-directed yorkers from Tim Murtagh; twice he edged short of the cordon; twice he survived huge appeals for leg before. One of them, against Toby Roland-Jones, looked dead for all the world but replays vindicated umpire Rob Bailey's decision by showing a thin edge.
It was a brilliant, breathless passage of play. Even the rain that kept the teams off the pitch for around an hour with Yorkshire one run short of that bonus point only added to the drama: the cliff-hanger at the end of an engrossing serial.
On the resumption, Ollie Rayner beat Bresnan twice in successive deliveries - once as he attempted to cut a long-hop and once when one left him down the hill - before Sidebottom (who had faced 51 balls for his 7 at the time) was finally given one on his legs which he tickled to the fine-leg boundary. The roars from the stands - this match has attracted around 15,000 spectators over its first three days - and punched fists in the middle told the story of how vital it could prove to be.
"When we came off last night knowing exactly what we had to do, it kind of made it a bit easier," Bresnan said. "We needed someone to do that and luckily enough it was me. 350 to keep the dream alive: getting there was a massive effort."
Might Middlesex have missed a trick, though? Had they allowed Yorkshire to race to 350 - very much against the grain of play might they not have allowed themselves more time to score the runs required to have an opportunity to bowl out Yorkshire in the fourth innings and ensured Yorkshire had an incentive to chase? The passage of play, though enthralling, probably benefited Somerset more than Yorkshire or Middlesex. If this match is drawn, Middlesex will be the first unbeaten (top division) side not to win the Championship since Lancashire (who were eighth) in 1974.
With their primary target reached, Bresnan and Sidebottom allowed themselves some more aggressive options. By the time Sidebottom skipped down the pitch and was bowled, the Yorkshire lead was potentially match - and competition - defining. It was all a long way from 32 for 3 or even 53 for 4.
Middlesex, however, will surely rue two more dropped chances. Having reprieved Andrew Hodd on the second day, Nick Compton then put down Azeem Rafiq on 33 before Rayner and Sam Robson combined to put him down again on 38. While neither chance was easy - Compton had to run in from short third man and dive in an attempt to take the upper-cut off Steven Finn, while Rayner deflected the ball out of Robson's path off an edge from James Franklin - Middlesex would have expected both to be held.
Rafiq, - who would probably have missed out had Adil Rashid felt able to play, finished with a priceless 65, surviving a hostile spell of short bowling from Steven Finn by a mix of pluck and good fortune and taking a blow on the helmet from Toby Roland-Jones. On such moments are Championship campaigns decided.
"I was an absolute nervous wreck up there in the dressing room," Sidebottom said afterwards. "I think I was averaging two this year so to go out and get those runs was really nice. We all stuck at it.
"Bressie was absolutely brilliant. That was arguably his best innings. His batting has come on so much the last two years and that innings typified it.
"It's been such a long season and to go down to the wire on the last day is amazing. It's great for the County Championship and for everyone watching."
When Middlesex subsided to 2 for 2 within the first four overs of their second innings, it seemed a three-day victory was possible. Robson, perhaps inconvenienced by the hand he hurt while dropping the Rafiq chance, hung his bat out at one he could have left before Compton was punished for some slow footwork by a peach of a ball that left him just a touch to hit the top of off stump.
But Gubbins, not for the first time, stopped the rot. While progress was at time torturous - punctuated by a pull for six when Brooks dropped short - he has kept his side in with a chance of earning the title on the final day. "Even if it's 200 off 10 overs we've still got to swing and get them," Bresnan admitted. "So the ball's in their court."
"It was important that we got through two down," Murtagh said afterwards. "But the catches we dropped were costly. That last-wicket partnership was frustrating having got ourselves in a good position. It's been a draining three days.
"We're a little bit confused up there as to the options and what we want to do. We obviously want to win the game and try and win the title; that's a massive thing. But we don't want to just hand it to Yorkshire and set them something ridiculous. So who knows what might happen tomorrow?"
Indeed. And while agony awaits for two clubs - all three of the sides still in contention would be worthy champions - it reflects well on this great competition that, going into the final day of the season, six teams are still fighting for either silverware or to avoid relegation.
It is here the skills, the resolution, the experience is learned that has helped England to victory in five of the last seven Ashes series. It is here England's Test team is forged. But it's not just about being worthy: it's also wonderful entertainment. Cricket, any form of cricket, doesn't get much better than this.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo