Essex 333 (Lawrence 127, ten Doeschate 52, Shaw 4-72) and 16 for 1 require another 197 runs to beat Gloucestershire 255 (Roderick 61, Miles 55, Quinn 7-76, Porter 3-67) and 290 (Roderick 102, Dent 72, Klinger 53*, Napier 4-62, Quinn 4-87)
A day which some thought would confirm Essex as favourites to take Division Two's single promotion place eventually did so but not without suggesting the type of resistance the leaders must overcome if they are to prevail.
After a long day which warmed and brightened and even, at its best, confirmed the arrival of summer, Ryan ten Doeschate's batsmen need another 197 runs with nine wickets in hand to clinch a victory that would give them a 23-point lead at the top of the table. Essex are in a dominant position but the loss of Jaik Mickleburgh's wicket three overs before the close will have reminded the visitors that there is still serious work ahead of them.
But the rather pleasant state of affairs for supporters travelling from Colchester and Clacton followed two very fruitful sessions for home loyalists in which Gloucestershire's batsmen had made light of a 78-run first-innings deficit and had themselves established a decent lead of 153 runs with seven wickets in hand at tea.
Gareth Roderick's century and Chris Dent's increasingly assured 72 had fortified the hopes of those frequenting the hopes of those in the Churchdown and Charlton Kings marquees that Essex might be set a stiff target on the final day of this match.
However, once the openers were out, ten Doeschate's bowlers greedily exploited the weakness of Gloucestershire's later batsmen and the home side lost their last eight wickets for 62 runs with Matt Quinn removing four of the top seven batsmen to end with a match analysis of 11 for 63, comfortably the best of his career.
Graham Napier also showed what a loss he will be to Essex when he retires at the end of the season by making short work of the Gloucestershire tailenders. The combination of Quinn's hostility and Napier's movement finally broke the home side.
Foster took three catches off Napier and Quinn won a lively red-blooded exchange with Craig Miles, who whacked him for six over midwicket before giving a catch to ten Doeschate at leg slip next ball. Michael Klinger was left undefeated on 53 and three of Gloucestershire's batsmen scored nearly 80% of their team's runs
"The clock hath ceased to sound…shadow is round the eaves / The long day closes" wrote the lyricist Henry Fothergill Chorley in his famously gloomy part-song collaboration with Arthur Sullivan. As Nick Browne and the nighwatchman, Jamie Porter, made their way off the College Ground at ten past seven, one could see what he meant but the Essex players will not give a hoot about hard work should they be celebrating a victory on Saturday afternoon.
Nevertheless, it felt rather more than eight hours since grey cloud had lain quilted over the College Ground on the third morning of this game. That, of course, should not have brought either warmth or comfort to Gloucestershire's cricketers. The change in atmospheric conditions had helped cause their ruination in the first innings and they probably longed for the benevolent sunlight enjoyed by Dan Lawrence on Thursday evening. Instead, they would have to bat in double-maths weather with no prospect of a visit to the tuck shop.
But conditions which augured only struggle instead brought affluence in the first half of the day as Roderick and Dent put on 148 runs for their side's first wicket in 31.3 overs. The warmth that had helped Quinn to make hay on the first afternoon was lacking. So instead of struggling against a late-swinging ball, the openers prospered on the cool, rain-haunted morning.
Roderick cover-drove Porter to the schoolchildren on the boundary in the third over and that was the first of six crisp fours struck by Gloucestershire's captain on the way to a 43-ball fifty, his sixth half-century of the Championship season. The last of these, a clattering pull off a short ball from Quinn also wiped out the deficit with which the home side had begun the day. The layered members in front of the pavilion applauded generously, although this may have been have been as much to warm themselves as to salute the landmark. " 'Ee gave 'im some 'ammer" said one.
Either side of a half-hour break for drizzle, the openers put on 88 in the first session and were pleasantly settled when Nottingham and Cleeve Hills were reduced to grey shapes as more rain fell and the umpires called for an early lunch. Then the hills disappeared entirely and only the leaves on the trees persuaded one this was not October.
Nevertheless, the cricket brought happiness to the primary school children from Northleach, Amberley and Thrupp and to the folk in the marquees sponsored by the Churchdown Club and Gloucestershire Arms. The former, rebelling against killjoy injunction, were both seen and heard whereas the latter's comments could be made out ever more distinctly as the afternoon drifted on and hospitality did its work. Essex's more frivolous appeals were treated to ribald mockery.
The jocular mood was stilled a little when Ravi Bopara bowled Dent off the inside edge when the batsmen was only half-way through his shot and quietened even more when Graeme van Buuren was caught down the leg side for 25 by James Foster off Quinn. Then Roderick, after completing his first century of the season off 134 balls, was leg before to Bopara and the home side were 228 for 3.
The ale still flowed in the tents, of course - this is the Cheltenham Festival and enjoyment has never been dependent upon success. But it should be the Essex players who are savouring their pints tomorrow afternoon
Gloucs vs Essex
Specsavers County Championship Division Two
England Domestic Season