Nottinghamshire v Hampshire, Trent Bridge, 3rd day September 26, 2008

Nottinghamshire's grip slowly loosens

Jon Culley at Trent Bridge

Hampshire 203 and 376 for 5 (Pothas 104*, Brown 93, Benham 66) lead Nottinghamshire 211 by 368 runs

Michael Brown's 93 put the skids under Nottinghamshire's title ambitions © Getty Images
Back in May, when Nottinghamshire led the County Championship table after winning two of their first four matches, Chris Read was asked if he thought he had a team equipped to stay there. It was an unfair question to put to the rookie captain of a team just promoted, not least one with new players occupying three of its top five batting slots and two front-line bowlers likely to be unavailable for much of the summer, and while he was not about to demolish dressing room confidence by writing off their chances, he clearly had his doubts.

So if Nottinghamshire do miss out on the big prize - and it looks odds-on now that they will - he might reflect in time that it probably was a task beyond them. Right now, however, it will be pretty hard to take.

Midway through the afternoon session on day two, you may remember, Nottinghamshire, having bowled out Hampshire for 203, were cruising at 173 for 3 in reply. Having taken an eight-point lead into the last round of matches, it was a pleasantly comfortable place to occupy.

Since then, it has all gone horribly wrong. Bowled out for 211 after losing seven wickets for 39, they have been unable to contain Hampshire's second innings let alone take ten wickets. Day three began squarely to the visitors, who turned an overnight 102 for 1 into 376 for 5.

The title has not yet eluded Nottinghamshire, whose simple requirement to win the game has not changed, regardless of what looks a certain victory for Durham over Kent at Canterbury. To do so, however, Read's batsmen will have to pull off an extraordinary feat.

Even were Hampshire to declare overnight - or lose their last five wickets without adding a run - Nottinghamshire would need to score 369 at close to four an over, some 119 more than their manager, Mick Newell, considered to be a gettable last-innings target, and with Imran Tahir, Hampshire's prolific legspinner, itching to finish the season with another clutch of wickets to go with the 40 he has already, in the last six and a half Championship matches.

It will not have helped Read to have three dropped catches playing on his mind, fate having cruelly chosen this day of all days to play havoc with his normally reliable glovework.

The first of them, letting off Chris Benham on 5, was not easy, a ball from Charlie Shreck swinging away after clipping the edge to fall just out of reach of his right glove. But the chances offered by Nic Pothas on 39 off Samit Patel and Liam Dawson on 19 off Graeme Swann were, by Read's standards, bread and butter.

They weren't cheap misses, either. Benham went on to reach 66 before Patel, the left-arm spinner, found just enough turn to dart one back to clip his off stump, while Dawson (48) and Pothas (104) have yet to be dislodged.

Moreover, Read's own skills were not the only weapon to desert him at the critical moment. Darren Pattinson, whose 47 wickets have been a major factor in making Nottinghamshire contenders, was able to bowl only six overs all day, Newell admitting that the former roofer turned sometime England bowler is exhausted. In the circumstances, Nottinghamshire supporters were questioning the point of having Stuart Broad on the club's books, given that even the most critical match of his county's season is not deemed important enough to interrupt his pre-England tour rest period.

It left Charlie Shreck, Andre Adams, Patel, Swann and Mark Ealham to share most of the burden of bowling and with little success. Adams struck early to remove Michael Lumb leg-before, Swann turned one into Michael Brown's pads to deny the opener what would have been an accomplished hundred, Ealham had Sean Ervine taken by Will Jefferson at slip and Patel accounted for Benham -- but that was it.

Not that it was all down to Nottinghamshire collectively running out of ideas on a slow and so-far fairly unresponsive pitch. Hampshire did bat commendably well, not least Pothas, whose 11th boundary, driven firmly through the covers off Patel, completed his 23rd first-class hundred off 176 balls.