Essex 285 (Bopara 79, Ryder 69) and 136 for 8 (Bopara 48*, Dawson 4-58, Briggs 4-61) beat Hampshire 246 (Wheater 107, Rimmington 65) and 171 (Carberry 56, Smith 4-46) by two wickets
Spin bowling in England might be perceived to be in decline but Ravi Bopara suggested that outgrounds could hold part of the answer as he countered the turn found by Danny Briggs and Liam Dawson on a much-praised pitch that increasingly gave succour to the numerous spinners taking part.
In one of the finest games of cricket this summer in any format, Essex, needing 133 to win after bowling out their opponents for 171, were victorious by two wickets, bringing them to within 18 points of their second-placed opponents, who now must guard against their season sliding with Kyle Abbott away with South Africa. But above all, this was a triumph for the kind of festival that continues to be under threat around the country.
As Bopara, who finished unbeaten on 48, emphasised, there should be more festival matches on outgrounds if pitches can be prepared to assist the spinners as this one was. The week at Colchester - in reality nowadays a four day match and a one-dayer - is always well supported, if not necessarily by the Borough Council. Essex freely admit they need more funding and could do without being charged for car parking, which does sound extraordinarily penny pinching. They also require a decent level of sponsorship and, preferably, sunny weather.
It does help, of course, that the Essex chairman, Nigel Hilliard, is from these parts and that the Colchester club is a friendly set-up. Even though the first day's play was lost to rain, what effectively was an old-fashioned three-day encounter was still concluded with more than a session remaining. As Bopara put it: "There should be more pitches produced like this one. Games can become boring with seamers running in all day.
"I should like to see more pitches produced for spin bowling - it presents a different challenge to batsmen like myself," he said. "I want to see Essex continue to play at Colchester and if possible return to Valentine's Park, Ilford, especially because I live five minutes away. We want to give opportunities to spin bowlers and so we must have pitches like this one. And it was a fun day for the crowd."
Indeed it was. Hampshire had an overnight lead of 44, nine wickets intact, and yet collapsed after Michael Carberry, so dominant the previous evening, reached a half century with seven fours and the two sixes he had struck off Monty Panesar. It was not, in fact, the England spinner, who has been high-fiving everyone in sight in this match, who made the initial breakthrough but Jesse Ryder. Will Smith, pushing forward, Carberry himself, looking to drive, and James Vince, aiming to cut, all fell to his medium pace.
Panesar did not bowl until just before noon. When he did, he found some turn on a worn patch that accounted for Adam Wheater, century maker in the first innings, who edged to slip. Dawson was held at the wicket off one that jumped, and Greg Smith, bowling offspin, then took three wickets in nine balls: Sean Ervine caught at first slip, Nathan Rimmington nicely snaffled at leg slip, and Briggs leg before going back. Matt Coles pulled Panesar for a couple of sixes but drilled a drive to a fielder who had just been pushed back to long on.
Hampshire gave Briggs the new ball: indeed, but for two overs from James Tomlinson, he and Dawson were given all the bowling. This came off initially in that Nick Browne was stumped, well down the pitch, and Tom Westley was leg before, sweeping. Ryder pushed a full length ball from Briggs into short leg's hands, Foster was taken at the wicket and Ryan ten Doeschate bowled by a ball that Briggs speared into him: 55 for 5.
Ervine then held two sharp catches at slip to account for Greg Smith and Tim Phillips, who had been promoted above Graham Napier. At 80 for 7, Essex were struggling. But Bopara remained. For Hampshire to win, the likelihood was that Briggs would have to take six wickets. He bowled well enough, but the England batsman scotched the spin, rocked back and drove through the covers, swept effectively, and, once, flat batted him straight for six.
"Ravi put on an exhibition," Paul Grayson, the Essex coach said. "Over the next three or four years you will see the best of him. Everyone knows he is a class act."
Sajid Mahmood brought about victory with two successive fours off Dawson. This was only a third championship victory for Essex this season and yet they are in contention for promotion, not least through having beaten a side who, while remaining likely to go into Division One, will be starting to wonder whether this is to be a repeat of their failure to go up last year. Jimmy Adams, the Hampshire captain, apportioned no blame; he felt they simply did not have sufficient runs for the sake of Briggs and Dawson.