Essex 216 and 164 for 6 (Cook 47) lead Somerset 131 (Porter 5-51, Beard 4-23) by 249 runs<
Hampshire rounded up for 118 last week; Somerset sent packing for 131 this. Essex's bowlers have made such light work of the Championship's top two that the most optimistic phrase of all, "Fortress Chelmsford", was uttered around the ground on the second day. They have not seen off Somerset yet but if the muggy weather continues to favour the pace bowlers then a lead of 249 with four wickets left is a considerable one.
It was an airless, decaf sort of day, but Essex claimed a sizeable advantage when their young pace bowler, Aaron Beard, grabbed four top-order wickets with his first 15 balls with Somerset crumbling from 63 for 2 to 73 for 6 in the process.
Not since his eye-catching first-class debut against the Sri Lankan tourists as an 18-year-old three years ago has he had such a memorable day and he surpassed those figures with a career-best 4 for 23 in only five overs. Jamie Porter, not to be outdone by the young buck, dealt with the tail to collect 5 for 51, his best figures of the season, and Essex had an 85-run lead. Essex took the chance to announce that both had agreed new two-year contracts.
Before bad light trimmed the last nine overs from the day, Essex consolidated well enough with Alastair Cook again the bedrock with 47 from 94 balls. Continuing a first-class career after international retirement does not suit everybody but he has looked addicted enough to batting in this match.
Tim Groenewald produced a good delivery to dismiss him, turning him round with one that left him and having him caught at first slip. Ravi Bopara's dismissal eight balls from the end of the day as he clipped Jamie Overton forcefully to short midwicket gave Somerset just a glimmer of a chance.
Fortress Chelmsford was a term coined by Ronnie Irani during his days as Essex captain. He was a gregarious soul and had probably been watching too many football matches, but it suited the rise of Twenty20 and somehow it caught on, even for those who uttered it with tongue firmly in cheek which was nearly everybody else.
As Fortresses go, this one was a sedate one. The Essex and Somerset flags hung limply, gratefully even, at half mast, out of respect for Somerset's chairman Charles Clark, and during the tea interval a spectator twanged his braces so wearily that there was no certainty they would have the energy to hit his chest on their return trip.
For the past four years, Irani has been chairman of Essex's cricket committee and, in the committee rooms, there won't be much talk of Fortress Chelmsford, which sounds a bit like a second-rate American actress or maybe a greyhound trailing in last on an evening meeting in Romford.
But they are relishing the season in the committee room and in front of Anne's gourmet burger bar (aren't they all these days?) because if Essex go on to win it will be their fourth home win out of four. Can a side win the title without ever winning away? We might yet find out.
Somerset, who appeared to be better equipped to deal with the offspin of Simon Harmer, who took remarkable match figures of 12 for 61 against Hampshire, instead capsized against swing and seam. The captain, Tom Abell, handled his promotion to opener well with 36 from 78 balls before Porter had him lbw - his 300th first-class wicket - but George Bartlett was the only other batsman in the top seven to reach double figures.
That was largely down to the whippersnapper Beard, about 5ft 10ins but a little stockier these days with gym-toned biceps that bulge in defiance of his stature. He dashes in from a wide angle and achieves a decent amount of pace and was only playing because of a side strain suffered by Sam Cook in the previous Championship win against Hampshire, but if he keeps playing like this then A Change is Gonna Come.
Beard's arrival tempted the nightwatchman Groenewald, who had resisted 52 balls for six, to fancy that a release might be at hand, but all he managed was an edged drive. In his second over he then picked up James Hildreth, a brilliant run and dive behind square by Nick Browne to retrieve a botched pull.
Tom Banton should have gone to the fifth ball he faced when Ryan ten Doeschate dropped a straightforward in-out chance at short leg in Harmer's first over of the day, but he failed to take advantage and edged a wideish outswinger he had no need to play at.
When a slower ball caused Steven Davies to pop up a catch to mid-off, Beard danced around with the delighted realisation that it was a day when he could do no wrong. But the daftest dismissal was that of Jamie Overton who was suckered by Porter into a pull to deep square. His late-order terrorising is always hit-or-miss but this was a waste.