Essex accept Somerset challenge, which could come down to final-round clash

Simon Harmer gets a hug from Nick Browne Getty Images

Essex 519 for 9 dec. (Browne 163*, Bopara 135, Lawrence 64) beat Nottinghamshire 213 and 183 (Harmer 4-35) by 123 runs

The result at Taunton was not the one their supporters had been hoping to hear but Essex are still in there fighting. It took them a little longer than some cynics among the home crowd were gloomily predicting but by a little under 40 minutes after lunch a fifth victory in six was in the bag.

Ben Duckett, batting at six after earlier problems with an injured thumb, and the Indian Test player R Ashwin, whose tireless contribution to his county debut at least raises a glimmer of hope for the team marooned at the bottom of the Division One table, led such resistance as there was but Essex were never likely to let this one slip, having reduced Nottinghamshire to 100 for 5 on the third evening, still 206 runs behind.

Their next two fixtures, ahead of the Twenty20 hiatus, are both at Chelmsford, where they have won their last four. The leaders Somerset, who suffered their only defeat so far when they visited the County Ground two weeks ago, know there is no cushion should they stumble, especially since the return fixture against Essex, enticingly, is the last one of the season.

Simon Harmer, who raised his tally to 49 as Division One's leading wicket-taker by taking 4 for 35 from a marathon 40 overs on a flat pitch, believes the title is for Somerset to lose.

"We can't really be worried about other results," he said. "We need to focus on winning every game that we play.

"But if we do that we are going to put as much pressure on Somerset as we can and after the start they had to the season I think the title is theirs to lose.

"We beat them last week and we still have to play them again, so hopefully it comes down to that last game of the season at Taunton. With the brand of cricket we are playing, they are going to be the ones looking over their shoulders."

Beating a Nottinghamshire side that have struggled to give any opponent a decent game this season might not look especially significant, but head coach Anthony McGrath says Essex will draw plenty from how the four days unfolded.

"For one thing, it was our first win away from home," he said. "We have been on a roll at home. Our attack has had favourable conditions at Chelmsford, so to win here on a flat deck and get 20 wickets is a big, big effort and hopefully it will give us confidence going into the rest of the year.

"I was really pleased with the way be bowled in the first innings. The way Notts were going at 120-odd for two it looked like they were on for a big score but we wrestled the initiative back and bowled them out for just over 200 and that was key.

"And then, the way we batted ... the batsmen have come in for some criticism this year so to put 500 on the board with the attack Notts had was really pleasing. The pitch was slow but with Ashwin, Broad, Ball and Fletcher it is a class attack and, credit to Notts, they never gave in.

"I was really pleased for the batsmen because they have had a bit of criticism. I've thought that Nick (Browne) has looked really good in the last few weeks and to score that 160-odd, Ravi as well, and the other batters chipping in, confidence wise it will hold them in good stead for the last few games."

Like Harmer, McGrath was bullish about the title race, having seen his side respond in exactly the way he wanted after the chastening defeat against Hampshire in the opening round suggested they might struggle.

"We looked at this period as one in which we needed to get a run together with Somerset getting points on the board early on," he said. "We had to win the game against Somerset at our place because if they would have won they would probably have opened up too much of a gap.

"With them winning again this week it was important we struck back. It keeps it interesting.

"Inevitably people will talk about the final game and both teams will hope they are still alive by then and it makes for a really exciting conclusion to the season."

For Nottinghamshire, the soul-searching continues. Relegation is never a fate to contemplate lightly but as the top division expands to 10 teams next summer, not to be one of that group will be a particularly difficult pill to swallow. Yet to drag themselves off the bottom at this stage will require them probably to win four of their last six fixtures.

Steven Mullaney, a captain still adamant that he is the best man in the dressing room to lead the team through the tough weeks ahead, admits the team is feeling the loss of the voices of experience he can no longer call on to share the weight on his shoulders.

"I don't like to make excuses but we have had a big shift in recent years, losing players like Chris Read, Michael Lumb, James Taylor, Brendan Taylor, Greg Smith," he said. Add to that list the names of Alex Hales and Harry Gurney, who have both absented themselves from the red-ball game.

"Of the players we have brought in," he continued, "I don't think anyone is doubting how good the likes of Ben Duckett, Joe Clarke and Ben Slater are, but it takes a while for a side to gel and we are trying to work out as we go along how it works best. When you are not playing well, doing that seems a bit harder.

"But as captain, I still love the job and I'm as passionate as I was when I was appointed that I'm the right person to do it.

"It is quite right that when things are not going your way you are under the spotlight with the coaches but I have no ego. I don't want power or anything like that. I just believe that tactically I'm pretty sound.

"There's no big problems in the dressing room. It's just that out in the middle we need as individuals to be making better decisions at key moments."

Notts 3rd innings Partnerships

1st0SJ MullaneyBT Slater
2nd13CD NashBT Slater
3rd27BT SlaterJM Clarke
4th9SR PatelJM Clarke
5th46SR PatelBM Duckett
6th15LJ FletcherBM Duckett
7th5LJ FletcherTJ Moores
8th43R AshwinTJ Moores
9th17R AshwinSCJ Broad
10th8R AshwinJT Ball