Gloucestershire 87 for 4 (Barnard 3-16) trail Worcestershire 221 (Wessels 72, Higgins 4-55) by 134 runs
Only Leicestershire have endured a longer exile from county cricket's first division than two of the contenders for promotion this year. Gloucestershire and Glamorgan were both relegated in 2005, the last season of three up and three down before it was decided that the clubs in the upper tier should feel a little more secure.
The converse of that has been an increased degree of difficulty for the teams trying to make the transition in the opposite direction. Clearly, the change has disadvantaged this trio in particular, in which case Gloucestershire, in third place going into the final two rounds, will feel they ought not to miss the opportunity.
They meet second-placed Northamptonshire at Bristol next week, which might yet have one promotion place riding on it depending on how the table looks in a few days. Win this one first, however, with Northamptonshire and another contender, Durham, locking horns at Wantage Road, and the prize could be within touching distance.
Momentum is said to count for a good deal at this stage of the season and although they were beaten by Sussex last week, Gloucestershire had won three matches in a row before that one. They defeated Worcestershire by 13 runs in a thrilling finish at Cheltenham in July, a result which ended any lingering hope that Worcestershire themselves might still sneak into the race.
Yet after an opening day largely dominated by seamers under a cloudy sky, Gloucestershire had control for a while only to have it taken from them in a difficult final session in which Ed Barnard undermined them three times by taking wickets with the last ball of an over. Any optimistic notions entertained in the visitors' dressing room that the home side might have been distracted in their anticipation of defending their Vitality Blast crown at Edgbaston on Saturday, a date that Gloucestershire had pencilled into their diary before Derbyshire surprised them in the quarter-final at Bristol, proved without foundation.
Gloucestershire's bowlers had given them the upper hand in the first session, delayed by one hour after a damp morning, to the extent that when Ben Cox was out four overs after lunch, falling to the second of two fine catches by Tom Smith at third slip, Worcestershire were 71 for 5. Ryan Higgins, the allrounder whose runs and wickets are a large element of why his side are in contention, had taken three, going round the wicket to pin the left-handed Hamish Rutherford leg before and two balls later bringing one back sharply to bowl Alex Milton, who shouldered arms.
Without Moeen Ali, taking time out to nurse some minor "niggles" ahead of Saturday, Worcestershire's often fragile batting appeared in danger of caving in rather rapidly.
That they did not was down to Riki Wessels, whose approach to batting is consistently to attack. It comes off less frequently in the red-ball game than it did in white-ball cricket in his pomp but on this occasion it did, bringing him a 58-ball half-century and 72 off 89 deliveries before, attempting the reprise the slog-sweep that had brought him six off Higgins earlier, he found Ben Charlesworth on the square-leg boundary.
After a brief experiment opening, Wessels is back in the middle order and looks more comfortable there. His sixth-wicket partnership with Barnard (30) gave the innings some substance. With the game evolving quickly, Gloucestershire had their three bowling points - their first objective - in the 48th over, but Joe Leach and Adam Finch built on the impetus provided by Wessels enough to ensure it was the basis of a genuine recovery. Higgins, with 4 for 55, had been Worcestershire's most dangerous opponent with the ball. Shannon Gabriel, the West Indian Test fast bowler brought in for the final push, proved as ineffective as he had against Sussex.
The downside for Gloucestershire of bowling the home side out by tea was two hours of batting in light that did not really brighten until the last throes. James Bracey and Chris Dent weathered the new-ball threat but when Barnard came into the attack as first change, he immediately broke through as Bracey was caught behind and Dent edged to third slip.
Mitchell took his first Championship wicket of the season by having Smith leg before and Barnard combined again with Cox to leave Gloucestershire four down for 56, before Gareth Roderick and Charlesworth survived until the close.
Umpire Nick Cook, who was suffering from a sore knee, was replaced by Mike Burns mid-way through the afternoon session.