Surrey suffer batting wobble as Division One shakedown gets serious

Northants seamers run through hosts' top order to inspire faint hopes of relegation escape

Jamie Overton's fifty shored up Surrey after a collapse  •  Surrey CCC/Getty Images

Jamie Overton's fifty shored up Surrey after a collapse  •  Surrey CCC/Getty Images

Surrey 158 for 6 (Overton 50*) trail Northamptonshire 357 (Nair 147, Taylor 66) by 199 runs
There was a moment, before rain arrived after the completion of the 40th over in Surrey's first innings, that "The Great Escape - 2023, Steelbacks Edition" looked on.
Northamptonshire, bottom of Division One, 32 points from safety, had the 18-point league leaders on their knees at 91 for 6, trailing by 266. A relegation battle had burst into life, and with second-place Essex dominating Hampshire, the race for the County Championship title was about to be upgraded to "simmering".
Northants had only added five to the score they began day three on at the Kia Oval, Karun Nair moving to 150 before over-hand patting a return catch to Tom Lawes for the 20-year-old's second five-wicket haul of the season, and 50th first-class dismissal outright. But with 357 on the board the visitors had something to fight for. And fight they did.
Tom Taylor nicked off opposition skipper Rory Burns, captain Luke Procter had Ryan Patel caught at cover and Indian debutant Sai Sudharsan snared through to the keeper (off forearm rather than glove) before twin strikes after lunch from Jack White ended Dom Sibley's 83-ball resistance and nabbed Cameron Steel for a duck. Just like that, a team who have been second to most throughout this campaign had the defending champions looking to the heavens for divine intervention in between glances of the scorecard at Chelmsford.
Mother Nature obliged, first washing away two hours' worth of play from 2.17pm, before returning at 5.12pm to take us to a premature close. By then, a belligerent 33 not out from Ben Foakes and furious 50 off 52 from Jamie Overton had provided some much-needed insurance in a stand of 79.
Overton had been dropped on 40, hooking Procter to Sanderson at fine leg - a catch that would have made it 142 for 7, with Northants still leading by 215. But as Overton and Foakes walked off to cheers as the umpires declared the light too poor, 10 minutes before the heavens opened, Surrey looked to have got away with it. Especially as Hampshire had rallied some 40 miles away to avoid the follow on.
Of course, this is far from over, with Surrey not safe from being sent straight back in. Just as Northants did against Warwickshire, these two could also strike a deal involving twin declarations to give both a sniff at victory. Despite the state of the match, Surrey have the stronger hand because they will take a lot of convincing to even consider the risk of defeat. Whatever Procter poses to Burns in any such discussion will have to be akin to the 176 from 60 overs accepted at Edgbaston last week, which resulted in a two-wicket defeat.
The fact Northants host Essex in the final round might make Surrey more amenable to such a tryst, though the sense at this stage is they are happy to take the draw. That may change if Tom Westley is able to twist James Vince's arm on Friday morning. Just to add a layer of melodrama to all of this, Hampshire host Surrey at the Ageas Bowl next week.
Whether or not we are in for a manufactured finish should not detract from the work of Nair and an attack that combined to get Surrey 66 for 5. Taylor, whose 66 dovetailed with Nair in a 114-run stand for the eighth wicket, struck first by squaring up Burns from around the wicket. Procter's brace then prised open up a middle order shorn of Will Jacks and Jamie Smith.
White made a lacquer-less Dukes move to his beat. After pinning Sibley in front of middle with one that decked in, the only straight delivery the former England opener failed to get bat on, the ball that took out Steel's off stump followed a similar path out of the hand, only to straighten off the surface and beat the right-hander on the outside edge.
Jordan Clark was the first batter to offer anything by way of a riposte, hooking Sanderson over backward square leg for the first six of the innings. Two balls later, Clark was begrudgingly on his way back to the pavilion, displeased by the umpire's decision to adjudge him caught behind after Sanderson had seemingly trimmed him off to make it 79 for 6.
Foakes, as he has done all season, and for England under Ben Stokes' leadership, fought the fires and rebuilt, with a couple of gorgeous straight drives that soothed home souls and calmed dressing-room nerves. And when Overton arrived as the ideal foil, walking at White and lifting him over mid-off for his first boundary before the first rain interval, the tempo and feel shifted considerably. While there were a handful of edges dropping short of the cordon, their approach allied with the weather took the heat out of proceedings.
Day four brings with it opportunity, possibly the last chance for Northants to preserve their Division One status. But as much as they have fought valiantly over the last three days and deserve a shot at dictating their terms instead of being led by the weather, their poor showings up until this week are the reason why they remain odds on for an unedifying return to Division Two.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo