Nottinghamshire 193 and 138 for 5 (Wessels 60) lead Worcestershire 243 (Barnard 55, Mullaney 4-31) by 88 runs
Nottinghamshire's faith in attacking cricket on responsive Trent Bridge pitches has been fundamental to their surge to the top of Division Two and their anticipated securing of a treble that already includes both limited-overs trophies.
But play with fire and occasionally you get burned. Two days into their final home Championship match of the season, their unbeaten record is in peril. Worcestershire, their closest challengers, hold the edge, with Notts only 88 ahead with five wickets intact, and the batsman most likely to fashion victory, Riki Wessels, dismissed five overs before the close for 60, from 79 balls, cutting at Josh Tongue.
For Sussex and Kent, this had promised to be the round when Worcestershire would falter and their own ambitions of runners-up spot, and promotion, would be sharpened as a result. Instead, Worcestershire claimed a first-innings lead of 50 from an unlikely position of 89 for 6 and then bagged four Notts wickets before the arrears were paid off. Sussex, meanwhile, are following on in Northampton and Kent are in quite a scrap away to Durham.
When Wessels came to the crease, with Notts still seven behind, it was not inconceivable on such a rip-roaring, fluctuating day that Worcestershire could win in two days and they might well have done so had he not survived an lbw appeal, first ball, from Joe Leach.
He has had an outstanding season over both four days and 20 overs and, on a day when many batsmen nicked off as they pushed hard at the ball, he tended to sit back, make the bowlers come to him, and dealt in pulls, cuts and punches. It was Wessels' innings of 69 and 48 that helped tip the balance against another promotion contender, Northants, last week.
Until Wessels' intervention, Trent Bridge's "Batman" scoreboard, so called because of its black background and two pointy ears, told a disturbing tale for home supporters. Even Adam West, who played the caped crusader in the kitsch 1960s Batman series - a far cry from the dark and meaningful big budget versions of the 21st century - would have struggled to find a solution conveniently hidden in his utility belt. And this was a man who once pulled out a live fish from his nether regions.
Batman was no doubt in evidence when Notts emerged triumphant on NatWest Finals day, along with every other fancy-dress character ever imagined. Four days after the event home supporters were still uplifted, stopping each other around the ground and asking: "How's your hangover?"
The hangover was most noticeable on the pitch as the shift back to the four-day game brought a disinclination to meet a challenging pitch with defensive excellence. The most effective innings were defiant counterattacking affairs in adversity: not just Wessels, but Ben Cox and Ed Barnard for Worcestershire as they recovered to 243.
There were some high-profile casualties as 16 wickets fell, with Worcestershire's starlet Joe Clarke and Notts' Alex Hales among them. Clarke and Hales are both outsiders for a place in England's Ashes squad, Hales by dint of a few eye-catching biggies, Clarke promoted as such by his coach, Steve Rhodes, as he played the age-old card of inspiring one of his charges with talk of international honours.
So much for that theory. Clarke made a first-baller before lunch, pushing down the wrong line to lose his off stump to Steven Mullaney and, halfway up the pitch, looking round to gaze upon the wreckage. Hales, after tea, got to 12 then pushed forward only to edge Leach.
Clarke's future is uncertain - both Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire are touted as possible suitors, although Warwickshire look about to be relegated which would hardly help their case. Clarke is anxious for wicketkeeping opportunities, doubtless in the belief that it strengthens his England appeal, which overlooks the fact that England are well served by batsman-keepers, but not so overstocked by middle-order batsmen. Perhaps keeping is trendy at the moment, like grey carpets, jogging watches and newsreaders with opinions.
Worcestershire were well served in the morning by George Rhodes, whose mannerisms at the crease are the spit of his father Steve a generation earlier. He made 32 before he fell driving at Jake Ball immediately after lunch. R Ashwin's 19 at No. 6, which included a larrup over extra cover for six, was ended by a good outer in Ball's next over.
Cox announced the Worcestershire fightback, one pull shot against Harry Gurney as good as anything seen all day. Barnard caught the mood and, Wessels apart, is the only player to have passed 50. Leach took a blow on the head from a short ball from Ball, but looked none the worse for wear.
The ease with which Worcestershire added 154 for the last four wickets will worry Notts as they ponder what they need. They would take a 220 lead, certainly now, but that remains a long way away. "Holy Crossfire, Batman!" as Robin once wisely observed.