Gloucestershire 224 and 194 for 4 (A Gidman 53) trail Essex 541 (Bopara 147, J Taylor 4-125) by 123 runs
Gloucestershire are a side that, judging by recent evidence, relish a rescue mission. Born more out of necessity than an alternative approach, they've dropped anchor twice in as many weeks to stymie ascendant opposition and, having floundered in both disciplines for much of this game, their rearguard mode is now very much in operation.
But, unlike the conditions in which they salvaged draws against Surrey and then Glamorgan, there is enough in this Chelmsford pitch to unsettle even the most attuned batsmen. Essex remain firm favourites and will be confident of picking up the six wickets they require - as well as, possibly, a few fourth-innings runs - for victory on the final day but this is evidently a situation Gloucestershire prosper in.
They would have been a whole lot more confident of salvaging something here had Alex Gidman and then Hamish Marshall not undone their hard work. The latter, in particular, succumbed in a moment of rare impatience as he wafted at a wide one from Reece Topley that he ought to have left. The circumstances called for level-headed batting and up until that point, Gloucestershire had done just that.
Gidman was looking particularly comfortable as he proceeded to steady another rocking ship after both openers had fallen cheaply once again. Tall and elegant at the crease, the Gloucestershire captain led from the front and such was the calibre of his half-century that the locals felt obliged to offer a smidgen of applause.
It required an unerringly accurate inswinger from Topley, who had endured an off day to that point, to end his resistance. Gidman knew the significance of the moment as he could barely bring himself to trudge off. His team mates could learn a lot from his gritty temperament. Will Tavare is a highly promising batsmen but twice in this match a chink in his armour has been ruthlessly exposed by David Masters.
In the field, Masters resembles an OAP scampering for a bus - he even spent a large chunk of the afternoon session watching from the balcony - but there is no shortage of spring in his step once the ball is in his hand. For all the excitement surrounding the potential of Tymal Mills and, to an extent, Topley, it's the old guard in Masters and Graham Napier that pose the most threat.
Masters is exhibit A in the argument that pace is not everything. He is nothing more than military medium at this stage of his career but his incessant hounding of batsmen ensures he is one of the most wily performers on the circuit. After a couple that moved away, he double-bluffed young Tavare with a straight one and then had Chris Dent edge behind to James Foster.
Earlier, Foster, the Essex captain, had perished in an effort to score quick runs, becoming a first wicket for Jack Taylor, the unorthodox, to put it mildly, offspinner. On his return to the Championship side, having been suspended by the ECB for ten months over his bowling action, Taylor showed admirable persistence having been ripped apart by Ravi Bopara in particular.
Bopara might not get another Test chance but with age comes sagacity and, in compiling 147, Bopara underlined his growing maturity. Moreover, there is an added element of determination. Since returning to the domestic circuit at the start of last month, he has wasted little time in scoring heavy runs, for which Essex are certainly grateful.
His innings spanned 372 minutes and nearly as many balls but once he lifted Taylor over the rope in the day's first over to move to a 25th first-class century, the qualities that make him a limited-overs mainstay for England were unveiled. Two more lusty blows, skipping down the pitch with an element of swagger, off Taylor had the members in the River End stand clambering for cover and those not in the firing line extolling with approval.
Yet, it was the spinners that had the last laugh, with the foot holes dug by the three left-arm seamers providing considerable assistance for Taylor and Tom Smith. Gidman wasted little time in deploying the duo in tandem and Essex folded from 509 for 5 to 540 all out the over before lunch - a declaration was coming in any case.
As he joined the BBC radio commentary team for a brief stint on air, Monty Panesar would have watched on with interest. But Panesar is representative of Essex in the longest format - undoubtedly talented but frustratingly inconsistent. In 12 overs, he rarely looked like making the breakthrough and, having switched ends late in the day, he was swatted to the fence by Will Gidman in successive deliveries. It is difficult to fathom why he has been so ineffective thus far given the conditions are conducive; the Essex faithful haven't stopped short of letting him know their thoughts.
He may have a big role to play yet, with the possibility of bowling his side to victory on the final day. But Gloucestershire are a unit up for the fight.