David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps
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Essex 238 (Snater 71, Abbott 3-41) and 223 (Harmer 61, Rossington 60, Dawson 7-68) beat Hampshire 163 (Harmer 8-46) and 286 (Organ 65, Harmer 7-161) by 12 runs
Simon Harmer claimed career-best figures of 15 for 207 as Essex clinched a thoroughly enjoyable match by 12 runs, but Hampshire have reason for considerable pride. Everything was tilted against them, not just the excellence of Harmer, who was in his element on a pitch that turned from the outset, but some borderline umpiring decisions and unfortunate ball changes. They came as credible Championship challengers and despite defeat that status remains.
That Hampshire might actually pull off an unlikely run chase was possible as Keith Barker organised late-order defiance, a dignified figure imbued with commonsense. But as the requirement fell, his ambition rose and when he clubbed heartily to long-off, Harmer had his seventh wicket and Essex had their victory.
About the time that Brendon McCullum's noon edict for county cricketers to buy into England's spirit of all-out adventure became known, Chelmsford was a hive of inactivity. The two scoreboards were frozen in time, both showing the wrong score and the umpires were nosing through several boxes of balls trying to find some suitable replacements.
Whatever the scoreboards would have the crowd believe, the real score at that juncture was Hampshire 113 for 1. An unlikely target of 299 was beginning to look gettable, especially as the expected matchwinner, Harmer, was sitting on unflattering figures of 1 for 69 in 14 overs.
In actuality, Hampshire had adopted Bazball on the previous evening when Felix Organ, their slightly built opener, had swung Harmer for three sixes over the stands at straight midwicket. Two more slog-sweeps had quickly followed on the third morning. The only problem was that several had plopped into the River Can. Essex were fast running out of suitable substitutes.
So the official exhorting on behalf of Bazball, county cricket style, happened to coincide not with an immediate run fest, but a crash of wickets after (to Hampshire's mind at least) the choice of a harder ball than might have been appropriate. By lunch, Essex had put together a decisive sequence of five wickets for 36 runs in 52 balls. Harmer had improved his figures to 4 for 118. The ball was fizzing again and his authority had been regained.
"What is the highest successful run chase at Chelmsford by the opposition since Harmer came to Essex?" was one query at start of play. The answer turned out to be 2, made by Surrey in four balls. Essentially then, a victorious run chase against Harmer on a Chelmsford turner was an unrealised ambition. It remains unrealised after Essex completed a 12-run win. Harmer finished with 7 for 161 - following eight wickets in the first.
An even battle between bat and ball was Harmer's assessment. "It isn't ideal to go for that many runs," he said. "There needed to be a bit of cat and mouse with their batters. I needed to bowl an attacking line and their best option was the slog sweep. My mindset was that if you could do that for 299 runs then I'll take my hat off, shake your hand and say 'well done'. We always knew we would get to a point in the season where the wickets would start to deteriorate and we would get wickets that would turn."
That Harmer would immediately take up the attack was a certainty, but it was his seventh over of the morning before he struck. Organ can draw much heart from his 65. He had stayed inside the turning ball whenever he could and also swung lustily to the leg side. He was bowled attempting a square drive: a fair enough shot, a decent ball.
James Fuller was promoted up from No. 9 to No. 3 with the intention of launching a blitz upon Harmer. To force him out of the attack would have been ambitious, but a quick foray might at least set an adventurous tone and strengthen Hampshire's conviction that they could win the game. Harmer dragged down one delivery that was duly clubbed for six but there was a seamer to contend with at the other end and, with 20 from 17 balls, Fuller fended Aaron Beard to second slip.
Beard has returned from a loan spell at Sussex in good heart. If he can finally retain fitness, he can rediscover the brio of his youth. His support for Harmer was also instrumental in Essex's win, a second wicket coming his way when Liam Dawson was adjudged to have been caught at the wicket.
Hampshire are playing combative, occasionally testy cricket, and Dawson's dismissal left them aggrieved. Nick Gubbins, typically, was a vision of politeness when he went back to a good-length ball from Harmer and was lbw. James Vince, though, felt the need to check with the wicketkeeper, Adam Rossington, whether his gloves had broken the stumps when his square cut was beaten by a lavish Harmer break-back that clipped his off bail. The decision looked fair enough.
Initally, Harmer's authority after lunch was undimmed. Aneurin Donald became the third Hampshire batter to be bowled by a big turner after playing back to cut. Ben Brown, who played Harmer as solidly as anybody in both innings, was lbw after he switched around the wicket.
At 208 for 8, made at four-and-half an over, Bazball then relented as the two elder statesmen of the side, Barker and Kyle Abbott, opted for a more orderly approach. With the ball softening, two such imposing, battle-hardened figures could not be entirely discounted. They added 41 in 13 overs without any sense of risk. A crossword clue could be completed in the knowledge that nothing outrageous would be missed. Then Beard brought one back and Abbott was lbw to something that felt distinctly leg-sidey.
"The draw's the second-favourite result now," opined a spectator in front of the media box. Were there reports of storms in Borehamwood? But the skies were clear and so was the result as Barker, emboldened by a pulled six against Snater, got out the reverse sweep to take four leg byes off Harmer and then perished at long-off.
So Harmer had the last word - if you don't count the grumbles from Hampshire's skipper, Vince. There were plenty of them and they were justifiable to an extent, but only to an extent. He sounded a little too much like an English professional who resents a turning ball. And considering that Hampshire manufactured a turning pitch only last September to try to keep their title challenge alive, he could only protest so much.
"Due to the conditions we had to play village cricket really and attack the short side and hope you got lucky," he said. "The pitch from day one was turning a hell of a lot. Harmer took wickets right from the word go. In the first innings a lot of the guys tried to play it properly and defend the good ones but it was just doing too much and you were never going to survive a few overs before one bounced over the shoulder. He is a world-class bowler who is going to exploit those conditions.
"We did the hard work and we saw as the ball got older it spun less, then they changed the ball a couple of times. We had one that came out after 30 overs which still had writing on it and then we lost six wickets in next to no time and the ball started seaming around from the other end as well. They said they felt that there wasn't a ball exactly the same so they went for a newer one rather than a slightly older one. It leaves a bitter taste especially as we got so close. There were some uncontrollables there that stopped us from getting all the points.
"We were hoping to come up and go man for man against a decent Essex team and let the best team come out on top, but the conditions prevented that from happening."
Simon Harmer claims 15-wicket haul as Hampshire fall short in brave chase
Ball changes and questionable decisions leave Hampshire sore as Essex sneak 12-run win
Hampshire required to face down Simon Harmer after Liam Dawson seven-for sets up chase
Harmer and Adam Rossington fifties leave Hampshire needing 299 to win in fourth innings