O'Brien and Wessels dominate Surrey
Northamptonshire 332 for 4 (O'Brien 128, Wessels 109, White 63*) trail Surrey 376 (Batty 110, Afzaal 62, Schofield 57) by 44 runs
This is Northamptonshire's game in hand on their two closest promotion rivals - Gloucestershire and Derbyshire - and after an opening day of hard toil they reaped the benefits with a strong effort at The Oval. Firstly they removed Surrey's last five wickets for 56 then marched powerfully onto 332 for 4, led by a dashing hundred from Riki Wessels and a stylish ton from Niall O'Brien.
The two wicketkeepers added 159 in 31 overs as they feasted on some awful bowling and quickly changed a game Surrey briefly thought they were edging. O'Brien and Wessels came together after Jade Dernbach claimed two in two balls; Stephen Peters was brilliantly held in the gully and Alex Wakely paid the price for playing to leg against the swing, losing his off stump to leave Northamptonshire 26 for 2.
O'Brien initially raced out of the blocks, reaching 26 from 12 balls, against a wayward Alex Tudor, who was removed after an opening spell of 2-0-26-0. However, Wessels soon took up the attack and put away a series of help-yourself offerings. He went to his first hundred of the season - and fourth overall - from 94 balls with the second of three consecutive boundaries off James Anyon.
That Surrey broke through was down to a Northamptonshire error, as O'Brien called Wessels back for a dangerous second run and the latter was well short when Rangana Herath's throw came in from long leg. O'Brien, though, composed himself and ensured he didn't waste his hard work.
Following his lightning start, O'Brien reined himself in and took 59 balls over his first fifty then reached his hundred from 150 deliveries when he tucked Matthew Spriegel through midwicket. He is a classy batsman - a point demonstrated on the one-day international stage for Ireland - and promotion to Division One would allow him to push his game further. Sadly for O'Brien, England aren't short of keepers so Test honours are unlikely, although Ireland will be grateful they won't lose another star name.
When past his hundred he dispatched Herath for six over deep midwicket but Chris Schofield, after two big appeals in two balls, finally had him caught at slip from a drive. However, by now Rob White was also in on the act and he too had three figures in sight by the close of play.
Surrey have only bowled a team out twice once this season (Northamptonshire were the unlucky side in the previous meeting) and on the evidence of today's bowling it's not hard to see why. Dernbach is the only who can hold his head reasonably high, but to say the combined efforts of Tudor and Anyon were a disappointment would be an understatement.
Both Tudor and Anyon, who is on loan from Warwickshire, are trying to earn contracts for next season but after this showing Chris Adams' signature won't be poised on the dotted line. Between them they sent down 15 overs for 104 and the figures aptly demonstrate what was on offer.
Neither did Surrey's spinners offer much control. Herath, the Sri Lankan left-armer, has so far found taking county wickets much harder than bowling out Pakistan and New Zealand. The pitch didn't offer him, or Schofield much, but they also struggled to tie up an end for Stewart Walters.
However, the surface was starting to produce a touch of spin. That could yet develop over the next two days and Surrey's final total of 376 was below expectations. It was three South Africans who wrapped up the effort as Jon Batty hadn't added to his overnight total when he cut Johan van der Wath straight to point, then Nicky Boje prised out Tudor from a lofted drive and Herath to a top-edged sweep.
Schofield played positively and struck two clean sixes as he reached a 70-ball half-century before becoming one of two late scalps for Andrew Hall.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo