Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket
Northamptonshire 81 (S Cook 5-21, Porter 4-31) and 23 for 5 (Cook 4-5) trail Essex 170 (White 4-40, Taylor 4-67) by 66 runs
Sam Cook starred with an extraordinary nine-wicket haul on a ramshackle day of batting, as Essex and Northamptonshire did their level best to fast-forward the end of their county seasons by two full days, and thereby trigger an early start to Essex's celebrations after they all but secured one of the more spurious red-ball trophies of their storied recent run.
The Second Division trophy may lack the cachet it held back in 2016, when Essex kickstarted their reign as the country's pre-eminent first-class team by marching back to the top flight after a six-year absence - this time, they will be picking up a gong for finishing precisely seventh out of 18, which is about as specifically weird as this grand old game gets.
But at least they are likely to seize their spoils in style, as Northamptonshire limped to the close of their second innings on 23 for 5, still trailing by 66 runs and with their hopes of making it even as far as lunch on day two looking as flat and forlorn as James Sales' off stump, as Cook signed off a remarkable personal haul of 9 for 26 in 17.5 overs by bowling the hero of Northants' recent rearguard against Durham with the final ball of the day.
Even allowing for the brilliance of a young bowler who has now surged past 50 wickets for the season, there really were no mitigating circumstances in a desperate team display. Five of Cook's dismissals were pinned-on-the-front-pad lbws, as Northants - seemingly suffering from end-of-era-itis as David Ripley's fabled reign dribbles to an unworthy conclusion - found themselves consistently confounded by a modicum of movement on an unwavering full length.
Adam Rossington even won the toss for the visitors and chose to bat first, perhaps having considered that Simon Harmer in late-September is a threat best countered in the first innings than the fourth. As it was, Harmer barely had a chance to feature. Northants were three-down for 29 before he entered the attack for a five-over foray in the first innings, and though he served up a handful of sizzlers in a three-over burst before stumps, this is shaping up as possibly the quietest contest of his Essex career.
Harmer may also be involved in some fairly quiet Essex celebrations, as and when the contest is sealed, given that Ronnie Irani's current boardroom agitations seem to centre around allegations of a drinking culture at Chelmsford. Nevertheless, as the County Ground lined up at the lunch break for an emotional salute to the retiring Ryan ten Doeschate, after 19 years of trophy-harvesting service, it was a salutary reminder that the game's glories are judged in human terms as well as by the weight of a team's silverware.
Tendo declined the chance to be directly involved in this fixture, and with Tom Westley also absent due to his fast-impending parenthood, the captaincy passed to one of Essex's younger senior pros. And for 47.4 overs, spanning two separate innings, Dan Lawrence would have been forgiven for thinking he's got this leadership thing nailed. Jamie Porter set the full-lengthed tone with a brace of wickets in his first four overs - each of them a left-hander in Ricardo Vasconcelos and Luke Procter, whose off stump went tumbling as he flung his hands dismissively through an ill-aligned drive.
And thereafter, Northants' innings degenerated like a clueless younger brother in a game of Brian Lara Cricket. Rob Keogh: full, straight, pinned on the pad! Saif Zaib: full, straight, pinned on the pad! Emilio Gay: full, straight, pinned on the pad! Josh Cobb, full, straight, pinned on the pad!
Guileless from top to bottom, right down to the skipper Rossington himself, who signalled some resistance when he dropped to one knee to slog-sweep Cook over midwicket for six, only to ruin his own endeavours by attempting the same trick too balls later, to be … you guessed it, pinned on the pad by a straight one!
Simon Kerrigan was then pinned on the front pad by a full and straight one (fancy that) to give Cook his fifth wicket in the space of 39 balls, having actually gone wicketless for the first 32 balls of his day, whereupon Porter broke with the theme of the innings as Sales was caught at first slip by Alastair Cook for a duck, Northants' last three wickets falling without addition.
Essex in reply were rambunctious from the outset. Nick Browne and Alastair Cook had written off nearly half the deficit inside the first six overs before both men nicked to slip in the space of the next four balls - Cook's innings of 18 from 17, with four expansive fours, another flighty display from a batter who has seemed all season to be tiring of the hard yards that for so many years have been his calling card.
There was to be no let-up in Essex's appetite, however, as they surged into the lead inside 15 overs, and squandered two more wickets in the process - Josh Rymell losing his off stump to a length ball from Procter, and Lawrence, with six fours in a bristling 33, choosing the wrong length from which to chase his seventh, as he scuffed a low drive to the substitute Gareth Berg at slip.
The race to the bottom continued as Paul Walter and Adam Wheater swung for a defendable lead, as if attempting to set up a run-chase in a rain-ruined title decider - they've certainly had some practice in that regard in recent years. Tellingly, there wasn't a single lbw in Essex's innings, as Jack White and Tom Taylor earned their four wickets apiece through a probing off-stump line, inviting aggression and as often as not a nibble to the cordon. In its own way, a total of 170 all out, at nearly four runs an over, made as little sense as the ineptitude that had preceded it.
But it was soon to be put back into context as Essex's seamers swaggered back out for the second-innings kill. Two balls into his resumption, Sam Cook aimed full and straight, and pinned Vasconcelos on the pad for the eighth lbw out of 11 Northants dismissals in the day. Before his day's work was done, he had delivered Simon Kerrigan a first-day pair - a rare ignominy on a day packed with them - then added Rob Keogh for good measure before taking the wind out of Sales. There's not a lot of fight left in this one. But at least it was glorious weather for a drubbing.
Ryan ten Doeschate
Northants vs Essex