Jesse Ryder scored a breezy hundred, Ravi Bopara made a rather more steadfast 99 but James Anderson's four-for ensured that Lancashire remain in with a sniff of conjuring the victory required if they are to overtake Surrey
Essex 326 for 7 (Ryder 116, Bopara 99, Anderson 4-56) v Lancashire Scorecard
It was a day for high-class operators at Chelmsford. Jesse Ryder scored a breezy hundred, Ravi Bopara made a rather more steadfast 99 but James Anderson's four-for ensured that Lancashire remain in with a sniff of conjuring the victory required if they are to overtake Surrey and claim the Division Two title.
As England's leading Test run-scorer, Alastair Cook can probably count himself in high-class category too but he managed only 1 off seven balls before losing his duel with Anderson. Forced to watch on from the Essex balcony, it is possible some of the day's entertainment might have been lost on him. "I didn't get a smile at lunch," Anderson said afterwards.
Anderson sat out the last two Tests of England's Ashes victory due to a side strain but he looked to have found his groove again here, a week before the squad flies out to the UAE.
"I've missed playing so it's been nice to have a couple of games for Lancashire," he said. "It was frustrating missing maybe six weeks with injury but I think once you get a little bit older and more experienced it's easier to come back and settle back in to four-day cricket. I'll hopefully continue to get better rhythm and take more wickets in this game."
The last time Lancashire played here, in 2013, they bowled Essex out for 20. At 14 for 2 and then 29 for 3 after being put in on a damp September morning, there were dark murmurings that the home side would implode again. They were rescued by stands of 186 and 95 for the next two wickets, before Anderson returned with the second new ball to leave things in the balance. It is not inconceivable that a deal could be struck later on, should Surrey fail to put away Northamptonshire at The Oval.
Essex may have appeared in trouble but Ryder does not seem to let too much worry him these days. After showing Anderson and Glen Chapple due deference, he tucked in against the change bowling, the bat swinging insouciantly through the line as he recorded his second Championship century of the season.
Ryder has found tranquillity in Chelmsford after the turbulence that marked his earlier career. He looks like finishing short of 1000 first-class runs but the supporters do not lack for excuses to applaud his lazily destructive batting or handy seam-up bowling (he has taken another 44 wickets this season). Tom Bailey felt the brunt of his attack, conceding 37 off the 27 balls he bowled to Ryder, which included a couple of sixes swatted beyond the boundary boards.
He brought up his hundred from just 115 deliveries, having also threatened the fencing at the Hayes Close End with another maximum off Luis Reece. Then, a ball after pulling Bailey dismissively over square leg, he played leadenly at a straight one to be bowled for 116, his appetite sated.
Bopara looked less at ease throughout, which is perhaps to be expected after a season in which his previous top score in the Championship was 69. Anderson was peeved not to be awarded an lbw decision against him on 27 and Bopara nearly ran himself out on 78, having to dive for his crease as Bailey chased the ball into the leg side in his follow through but missed the stumps.
In between times, he threaded a number of silken drives through the covers and down the ground, while Ryan ten Doeschate contributed to the flow with an aggressive 59 during a partnership of 95. He eventually spooned Anderson to mid-off and Bopara, after spending 26 balls in the 90s and five overs on 99, followed him two overs later when he got something on a rising delivery and Phil Mustard sprawled to take the catch.
The fact this is now effectively a three-day match, after Tuesday's washout, lent an old-fashioned feel to proceedings. The involvement of so many international players was also slightly retro - Lancashire's new-ball pair had 321 England caps between them (albeit Anderson had 320 of them).
Cook got off the mark with a push into the covers off Chapple but only survived one delivery from Anderson before being pinned in front. Cook once recalled that the first time he played against Anderson a decade ago "he called me everything under the sun" but he would surely have put up with the potty mouth if it had meant significant time in the middle ahead of England's UAE tour. The next time Anderson wants a rest with England, he may have to ask his captain extra nicely.
Chapple then picked up wickets 983 and 984 of his illustrious first-class career. Will he play on next season to reach the four-figure mark? It seems even he is unsure. But a demanding opening spell of 12 overs in which he had Tom Westley, Essex's England Lions batsman, caught behind and Nick Browne, their leading scorer this season, taken at third slip, suggested he still has the skill and stamina to contribute as Lancashire attempt stay in Division One.