Hampshire 213 for 3 (Alsop 117*) trail Surrey 329 (Burns 101, Wheal 4-100) by 116 runs
If Hampshire do go down, which they so easily could have done last year and have looked like doing for most of this one, all is not lost. Unlike various sides around them, their direction of travel in Division One - even if it turns out to be too little, too late - is upward; at times in mid-season, they looked one of the weaker sides in recent top-flight memory, a collection of waifs and strays. Now, they look a team with plenty to be optimistic about.
Chief among the causes for optimism is 20-year-old Tom Alsop, an organised and stylish batsman, who scored a magnificent maiden first-class century to keep their hopes of survival alive. Hampshire have won twice this season, both against Nottinghamshire; in the first, at the Ageas Bowl, Alsop made his first Championship 50 to anchor the first innings, while at Trent Bridge in August, he made his previous highest score, 93. This innings gives them a mighty fine chance of claiming a third, season-saving win.
Conditions for batting - much of the day was baked in sun, and the typically Ovalish pitch seemed to flatten as the ball came on nicely - were much improved. On day one, Surrey's eventual 329, topped off before lunch by a roistering unbeaten 41 from Gareth Batty, looked a very fine score. But by the close of the second, Alsop had run Surrey - who largely bowled extremely well - ragged; not only was he dropped twice - at second slip on 72, and at square-leg on 91 - but he was the beneficiary of four overthrows late in the day, too.
Alsop came to the crease in trying circumstances, as Tom Curran bowled a magical spell after lunch, beating Jimmy Adams' outside edge - from over and round the wicket - numerous times, before finally finding it. Alsop was himself beaten, but soon settled, cleanly cutting Mark Footitt twice through backward point. Anything on his legs was flicked from fine-leg to wide mid-on, while his driving was crisp and precise - all the way from point to down the ground, off front and back foot - too.
He raced to 55 in 60 balls, but then as Hampshire lost Will Smith - with whom Alsop shared 92 before Smith edged Footitt behind - then James Vince, he did not score for 40 balls. "It was a case of getting through," he said. "It requires patience, and I'm not always the most patient person so I'm pretty pleased to get there."
Having done just that, he put on a counter-attacking unbroken stand of 88, from another unsteady position, with Sean Ervine, who plopped Batty into the Pavilion for six. With the weather set fair again, they have the chance to go big on on Thursday.
"Tom Curran made it very difficult, nipping it away from the lefties," he said, "then you have Meaker and Footitt bowling 90 clicks, it's pretty difficult whatever the track is. You play some teams and you think you can get through this spell and have a look at the others, but then they bring those two on. There's no real break."
Both in personality and skill (he is also an excellent short leg), it is perfectly clear why Hampshire - who in Mason Crane, Joe Weatherley and the Brads, Taylor and Wheal, have plenty of other talented youngsters - and England rate Alsop so highly. On the back of his maiden List A century, also against Surrey, he jumped the queue to receive a Lions call-up in July and it was hard to believe, watching this innings, at such a vital juncture in his team's season, that it was his first Championship ton.
"I got close a few weeks back," Alsop said, "and you do wonder if you'll get another chance, especially with just a few games left this season. I took it ball by ball and am completely over the moon. I really wanted this, and it's happened. They say the first one's the hardest and it's definitely felt that way."
Vince's was an altogether briefer, more confused innings. Few truly believe we have seen the last of him as a Test cricketer; he is, after all, a batsman of immense talent and an impressive character - indeed the youngest current county captain.
But before he is to return he must stop edging full, wide deliveries. It is that simple. By all accounts, the great strength of the century that so dazzled James Whittaker - and got him selected for seven Tests this summer despite modest numbers - at Headingley in April was his abstinence, at least until fully settled, from his seductive cover drive.
This looked the perfect opportunity for another day of chastity but, having edged short of first slip already, he was roughed up by some short stuff and could not resist the big drive. Ben Foakes, stood a touch wide as if anticipating the gimme, did the rest. It was a mightily slow, almost disbelieving trudge off.