Essex 76 (Abbott 6-20) and 208 for 3 (Lawrence 78*, Bopara 52*) lead Hampshire 254 by 30 runs
Kyle Abbott ripped through Essex to bowl the Specsavers County Champions out for 76, before Dan Lawrence and Ravi Bopara helped them back into the game, having been made to follow on, with patient half-centuries as the visitors led Hampshire by 30 runs at the end of day two.
South African fast bowler Abbott ended with figures of 6 for 20 as Essex collapsed to their lowest score of the season. Essex began the day on 33 for 5 after Abbott and new-ball partner Fidel Edwards had sparked a collapse.
Abbott needed just four morning deliveries to add to his two wickets on the previous evening, when he sent Lawrence's off stump cartwheeling. Essex captain Ryan ten Doeschate had reached 26, the highest score in the innings, but became Abbott's next victim as he was struck on the pads.
The former Test quick then celebrated his fourth five-wicket haul since re-joining Hampshire at the beginning of the season as he hit Simon Harmer on his back pad plumb in front of the stumps. The very next ball Neil Wagner was adjudged lbw to a ball pinging back at him, but Jamie Porter unconvincingly blocked the hat-trick ball.
Ian Holland wrapped up the innings when James Foster was lbw - Essex scoring below 100 for the first time in three seasons and completing their lowest score since they were bowled out for 20 in 2013.
That left them 178 runs behind Hampshire - who were seeking victory to confirm their place in Division One for the 2018 season.
After being asked to bat again, Varun Chopra gloved Gareth Berg behind to spark worries of a repeat of the first innings for Essex. But Nick Browne and Tom Westley put on 43 for the second wicket in a watchful manner to begin a turn in fortunes.
Browne fell lbw to a sharp Liam Dawson turner, while Westley was attempting to press his case for Ashes selection with a well-judged innings before smashing a caught-and-bowled back to Dawson on 36.
At 81 for 3, Essex were still 97 runs behind Hampshire, but Lawrence and Bopara partnered up to bat their side towards safety. Lawrence had got off the mark with a six over midwicket, but attacking shots were at a premium as he scored his half century in 115 balls.
After moving into the lead, and a century stand, Bopara collected his 48th first-class fifty from 106 balls. With stumps called early due to bad light, the fourth-wicket stand was unbroken on 127 and Essex had the chance to at least set Hampshire something in the fourth innings.