Essex 254 (Napier 74, Cook 59, Tomlinson 3-40, Briggs 3-56) and 143 for 6 (Napier 78*, Pettini 35*) beat Hampshire 197 (Ervine 60, Masters 4-29) and 199 (Vince 67, Dawson 52, Masters 5-41) by 4 wickets
There have been times in the past week or so when Paul Grayson must have felt like he had entered the harsher footballing world of his older brother, Simon. Calls for the manager to be sacked are forever part of a football manager's lot - and Simon Grayson has experienced just that at Leeds United and Huddersfield Town. But Paul is a county cricket coach. Such demands, especially in the first flush of a new season, are a rarity.
The younger Grayson, who issued a public apology after Essex's capitulation against Northants last week, has presided over an ordinary record in the Championship but he will no longer feel so beleaguered after this four-wicket win against Hampshire. Not that the win came easily. At 31 for 6 on a challenging surface when the ball was hard, the target of 143 seemed an age away and Grayson retreated to the office with his bowling coach and ex-Yorkshire team mate, Chris Silverwood, and awaited the worst.
Then came the game changer: Graham Napier. His 74 from 88 balls, with 10 fours and three sixes, in an unbroken seventh-wicket stand of 112 in 29 overs with Mark Pettini, turned a nightmarish situation into a three-day victory achieved in golden sunshine. Essex got home in the third over of the extra half-hour to escape from the bottom of Division Two.
Napier's reputation as a boisterous hitter was strengthened by his world-record six-hitting spree against Sussex five years ago - a record broken by Chris Gayle only last week - but that disguises the selectivity with which he approached his task. With six wickets lost by the 12th over, Napier and Pettini had some shine still to withstand before Napier, in particular, took toll of Hampshire's change bowlers.
Grayson was quick to recognise his contribution. "Graham is in a great place at the moment," he said. "He just seems to get better and better. He is a good professional now. He has got his body sorted out. This is as good a knock as I have seen from him. He is really maturing as a cricketer.
"It has been a stressful couple of weeks. We had a few home truths in the dressing room after our defeat against Northants and I think the guys have responded really well. We were outstanding with the ball throughout the game. It was just an hour's panicking with the bat that nearly cost us. There were a couple of good balls there and a couple of stupid run outs and all of a sudden we felt under a bit of pressure."
It was by no means certain until the closing minutes that Essex would wrap it up with a day to spare. Napier's slog sweep for six in a brief appearance of left-arm spin from Danny Briggs upped the tempo, as did ten in two balls from James Tomlinson, an inswinger helped over the midwicket rope followed by a rousing straight drive. Hampshire's recourse to the left-arm spin of Liam Dawson, who had not bowled in the game, with the match almost over was an oddity and Pettini struck him through midwicket for the winning runs.
"There were no plans to finish it in three days," Napier said. "As it was we were close enough to have a little dip. The new ball was a key part of the game and we got ourselves in a hole. It is a massive win for us. To bounce back in this game was crucial in our season. That is up there with my best innings. I don't often get the chance to see the team home."
David Balcombe bowled a particularly impressive new-ball spell, swinging one back in to strike Alastair Cook's off stump and having Ravi Bopara caught at slip. There were also two wickets in two balls for James Tomlinson: a flat-footed waft by Rob Quiney and a first-baller for Ben Foakes, whose vast potential has yet to bring dividends. But he did hold two stunning catches at short leg.
That left the comic run out of Tom Westley. Quiney clipped Balcombe through midwicket whereupon Jimmy Adams stumbled and fell not once, but twice, as he failed to dive to intercept, bringing laughter and jeers from the crowd. As Adams gathered to throw, Quiney wanted a third run, but Westley's thoughts were elsewhere. By the time George Bailey had ferried Adams' throw to the bowler's end, Westley was not even in the picture. Adams doffed his cap to the Members stand - a nice touch that spoke volumes for his character.
It got worse with the James Foster's self-destruction. He attempted a tight single to George Bailey at extra cover and was run out by a direct hit. If the captain was losing his head it did not say much for Essex's chances.
David Masters, an Essex beneficiary this season, was again their mainstay as Hampshire crawled to 199 at two runs an over. He dismissed four of Hampshire's top five, two of them on the previous evening, to finish with 5 for 41 and 9 for 70 for the match. James Vince, whose 67 was as fluent as Hampshire got, was the most valuable. There were three late wickets for Bopara, too, and he deserved his analysis brushing up because his discipline had played a substantial part in Hampshire's second innings never getting away.