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Browne's fortitude guides Essex through grim day

Essex 159 (Browne 44, ten Doeschate 35, C Overton 4-40, van Meekeren 4-60) and 117 for 3 (Browne 66*) lead Somerset 118 for 5 (Hildreth 51, Porter 5-40) by 112 runs

County Championship titles are not merely won by performances in glorious sunshine. Just as much, they are won by grit under sepulchral skies, fortitude under pressure and resilience after yielding a first innings lead.

Or, at least, Essex will hope so after the end of a second day played against the backdrop of clouds so gloomy they necessitated the use of floodlights, which could still only hold off the onset of bad-light for so long.

Their position, 112 ahead with seven second innings wickets in hand, remains far from impregnable. But a few hours before the players were taken off, Essex fans had dark thoughts of a two-day defeat to the second-bottom team in Division One.

At 36-3 in the second innings, a lead of only 31, and fresh from their first innings collapse to 159, the crowd recognised that here was a test of Essex's fundamental resolve.

Then, Nick Browne and Adam Wheater combined for the longest stand in this frenetic game - and, at an unbeaten 78, the equal highest of the game so far. They were some pleasing shots to enjoy - Browne's square-driving and cutting, and Wheater's cover drive - but, over 32.3 overs, this was an alliance defined by grit and cautious accumulation. There was a little fortune, too: Wheater was dropped on 14 at second slip off the admirable Paul van Meekeren.

Browne, though, was chanceless; and there are some here who consider that he, rather than Tom Westley, is the Essex batsman whose technique is best-suited to joining Alastair Cook in England's top three. His 66* has taken him to 36 runs shy of reaching 1,000 runs for the third consecutive summer. Over the last two of those, he now has 2226 runs at 51.76 apiece. "Every year that's my target to score 1,000 - Championship runs mainly and hopefully I'm not too far away from that now," he said.

The backdrop to Browne's austere innings was a ground brimming with tension. Not the high-octane sort that marks Chelmsford's rambunctious T20 evenings, but the quiet of 2,500 spectators very intensely watching the cricket, sensing a passage of play whose significance could extend far beyond the day itself.

By the time Browne and Wheater fled off to escape the gloom, which later gave way to showers, they had gone a long way towards maintaining Essex's grip on the County Championship. While the Chelmsford wicket is far better than the scores so far in the match suggest, Essex's bowling potency - and the conspicuous vulnerability of Somerset's batting - is such that they would expect to defend anything over 200 in the fourth innings. Manage that, and Essex would probably need just one win and two draws from their final four matches to secure the prized pennant.

"You're going to think about it, it's natural," Browne admitted. "It's an amazing achievement what we've done so far. There's no pressure on us whatsoever - we're just coming out and having fun."

Not that it looked like it when confronting Craig Overton. The primal scream Overton let out when celebrating snaring Varun Chopra, leaving a delivery that moved back to trap him indecisively on the crease, was in keeping with the intensity of his opening spell. The short ball was used as a weapon of shock rather than stock, recognising how seam movement, was Overton's great threat under murky skies: the over after snaring Chopra, a full length jagged past Dan Lawrence's crooked bat.

When Ravi Bopara used his feet to Jack Leach, and succeeded only in being being in the flight, at least Essex's one, three and four had been consistent, mustering a combined ten across both innings of the match. That is not solidity befitting Championship leaders. Just as well, then, that Alastair Cook will return for two more fixtures, as Essex hope, and that Tom Westley might well be back even sooner.

And Essex confirmed today that they will also be fortified by return of Neil Wagner for the final three Championship games, once he has overcome a slight hamstring strain. In the meantime, they are hopeful of having Mohammad Amir available for the crunch trip to Old Trafford next week.

His mark on this day was small but indelible, sealed in a coruscating opening over of play. Amir's second ball, from over the wicket, swung away from the left-hander Jack Leach and kissed his edge; his fifth, from round the wicket, was a sublime yorker that eviscerated Overton's middle stump. Amir then promptly went off, feeling his back, returned for another over, and then went off again. He didn't reappear thereafter, although Essex do not anticipate that his back spasm will prevent him bowling later in the match.

The upshot was that Somerset continued a dispiriting trend this season: of bowling the opposition out cheaply, only getting a modest lead - in this case just five runs - when they should have gained a decisive one, and then struggling later on in the game. To remedy this weakness, they are still considering signing an overseas batsman, but time - the registration deadline is September 8 - and the packed international calendar is working against them.