Morgan and Nannes keep Middlesex ahead
Essex 161 and 200 for 4 (Pettini 63*, Bopara 54) trail Middlesex 583 (Shah 144, Morgan 96, Scott 60, Kaneria 7-157) by 222 runs
Middlesex fortunes may be far from where their frustrated members want it to be, but a third straight day of domination over Essex at Lord's went a fair way to bringing some relief. The middle order pushed on patiently to cross 500 for the first time since a high-scoring draw last season at Taunton, a psychological 400-run-lead was achieved, and the day was capped with four wickets to leave Essex 222 runs behind. Apart from Danish Kaneria's seven-wicket bag, and fifties to Ravi Bopara and Mark Pettini, Essex found themselves playing catch-up against a side looking at their second consecutive Championship win.
Resuming at 442 for 4, Middlesex's overnight pair of Eoin Morgan and Ben Scott pottered along under lovely sun-soaked skies, aided by yawning spaces on the leg-side. The left-handed Morgan was keen to use his feet against Kaneria as early as his first over and skipped down to swat a boundary. Middlesex's 450 was up in the third over as David Masters belted out a hopeful appeal against Morgan, and the batsmen scampered two down the leg side, where a slow Alex Tudor spent much of the morning and was repeatedly picked on.
Scott raised his second fifty of the season, off 79 balls, but became the first wicket of the day when he misread Kaneria and was late on his shot, out lbw for a well-compiled 60.
Morgan was unflustered with his footwork and eased along with confident tucks and nudges. An effortless six over deep midwicket, in James Middlebrook's first over, was just one of an array of impressive shots until when, on 96, he danced down to Kaneria and missed an ugly heave that splayed his stumps. Morgan faced 66 deliveries on the day for 34 runs and had few issues against spin until his needless foray down the track.
Having toiled manfully from the Nursery End for seven overs, Kaneria's move to the Pavilion End proved fruitful. His fifth wicket came courtesy a sharp catch at first slip, Jason Gallian diving to his left to grab a neat low take off an attempted cut by Tim Murtagh. Gareth Berg (35) swung Kaneria to deep midwicket to make it 545 for 8, Steve Finn came and went for 4 and Kaneria closed the shutters shortly after lunch to finish with 7 for 157 from 43.5 overs. Shaun Udal notched up another handy score of 31 not out to take his season average to 52.60.
Essex began their second innings needing to seriously grind out runs, 422 runs behind with almost five sessions remaining. Gallian and Tom Westley played out nearly 16 overs, resisting the temptation to play their shots, but were removed in the space of two balls, both to the change bowlers after a tidy start from Murtagh and Finn.
Westley couldn't resist chasing Berg's fifth delivery and Scott took a great one-handed catch, low down in front of slip. Gallian played an horrendous waft to Dirk Nannes' first ball, reaching out to a very wide one and edging to Morgan at second slip. Grant Flower made a 16-ball duck in his first game of the season, becoming Nannes' second victim, leaving Essex in a hole.
With plenty resting on his sturdy shoulders, Bopara - about whom there's a distinctive buzz these days - provided further evidence of his excellent form as he moved to within 19 runs of Matt Prior's 724 tally for the season. Without being flashy he ticked along at a good rate, a back-foot drive through the covers the stand-out shot, and he didn't offer Middlesex a chance until he nibbled the first ball of another Nannes spell to Scott, with about 45 minutes left in the day.
Middlesex knew how vital that wicket was and as the players rushed into a huddle you could sense the appreciation for Nannes. Easily the best bowler on the day, his enthusiasm and ability to mix gentle cutters with quick bouncers left Middlesex needing six wickets to win.
Pettini, Essex's captain, went into stumps unbeaten on 63 after adding 81 with Ryan ten Doeschate but, with fine weather predicted on the final day, it'll take something special for Essex to escape to safety.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo