Hampshire 411 and 176 for 7 (Pringle 5-64) lead Durham 361 (Richardson 99*, Clark 58, Stokes 50, Wheal 4-39, Dawson 4-100) by 226 runs
There is no better way to prove that you are worthy of Division One status than by bowling out your last opposition in the final five hours of the summer. For Hampshire, that is the task.
With 96 overs remaining in their season, Hampshire lead Durham by 226, a target they do not deem enough - to the extent that, remarkably, they sent in a nightwatchman instead of the No. 9, Gareth Berg, for the last 18 balls of the day. They will bat, according to their director of cricket Giles White, for an hour on the fourth morning. From there, 10 Durham wickets stand between promotion and relegation; with Lancashire looking unlikely to do them any favours at Edgbaston, it really does appear that simple.
Hampshire's penultimate day of the campaign started badly, and did not improve markedly. Unforecast, unwelcome rain came up the M27 from Bournemouth at about 10am, great swathes of the stuff, preventing a prompt start and refusing to fully shift before noon.
The punters felt they were watching Hampshire's Division One status wash away with the rain, a tough end to a tough season; a season, it should not be forgotten, including death, life-threatening illness, and the comparatively trifling issue of a coach departing midway through. They busied themselves making small talk about Jonathan Trott, the man both on their back-pages and batting at Edgbaston, the other game of interest. Fingernails were chewed, few sat still.
Upon resumption, with 16 overs lost, little changed. Hampshire began the day in front by 169. By stumps, that advantage had grown, although not by as much as they would have hoped, to 226. The brilliant Michael Richardson, as he had on the second evening, held them up in the company of the tail, getting Durham to within 50, before being left stranded on 99 by Chris Rushworth's brainless swipe. As Hampshire celebrated in relief, he battered his pad with his bat, then stood motionless at the non-striker's end.
The 47-over period in the evening session was the game in microcosm. Hampshire flew out the blocks, zipping to 50 in as many balls, before losing 6 for 58 to be pegged back. Liam Dawson and Lewis McManus, so similar in style, shared 57 before the former fell trying to push the score on; susprisingly, with five overs remaining, Hampshire were cowed, and sent out a nightwatchman, Mason Crane, rather than Berg. The decision to eat into the 96 overs had been made; the doomsaying local view had not changed.
"It didn't go to plan this morning," White said. "They batted well, particularly Richardson, and we weren't at our best."
Durham's wicketkeeper, who shared 79 for the eighth wicket with Brydon Carse and a zippy 86 for the ninth with Graham Onions, played a magnificent hand, eating up deliveries and eking out runs as Hampshire's spin assault continued.
The hosts had been wasteful with the new ball (they have also wasted 10 runs by allowing the ball to twice hit the helmet), erring plenty onto leg stump and overpitching often. Carse and Onions - batting with glee - were the aggressors, but Richardson punished the bad ball, skipping down the track to Dawson and lofting over long-on, as well as cutting Crane. He deserved better than to watch Rushworth pinned in front sweeping when he had entrusted him with just a single Dawson delivery.
As Hampshire set up a target, Rushworth's first over went for 11, all pulled, as Will Smith and Jimmy Adams started with intent. But Adams, top-edging to 45, and Tom Alsop, caught at slip but very unhappy about it, fell in consecutive overs as the spinners, Ryan Pringle and Scott Borthwick, came on early. In the blink of an eye Pringle had four more, James Vince bowled through the gate and Smith caught at bat-pad, then then lefties, Sean Ervine and Ryan McLaren, gone in a single over.
There remains plenty to encourage Hampshire. That all seven wickets, including Dawson to Borthwick late on, fell to spin is cause for optimism. The pitch, as Paul Collingwood predicted, has not deteriorated greatly (perhaps a couple stayed low), but continues to turn sharply and in Crane and Dawson, with Smith supporting, they have the stronger spin attack; certainly they turn the ball plenty, even if Dawson is nursing a finger injury. The plan is to dangle an enticing target before Durham's eye, induce errors, and watch wickets fall in clusters, as they have in their own second innings so far.
That's the plan, but now the talking stops. Do they have the minerals to escape again? "We'll be better with the ball second time round," White said. They have no choice: with all eyes on the top of the table, county cricket's Great Escapologists face their latest day of reckoning.