Tom Westley hit 164 not out in an unbroken partnership of 216 with Jesse Ryder, who finished on 90, as Essex fought back on day three against Northamptonshire at Wantage Road, finishing 300-3 to lead by 132.
After Northants extended their first innings lead to 168, despite losing four wickets for 40 in the morning, Essex were still 84 runs behind when Westley and Ryder came together shortly after lunch.
Westley was the main aggressor, reaching three figures for the first time in a year in 122 balls, and went on to hit 25 boundaries, while Ryder played the supporting role, following his first innings 87.
Northants had resumed 397-6, but after bringing up maximum batting points with the fourth delivery of the day, Steven Crook fell to the ninth, top edging a hook of Graham Napier to be caught in the deep for 39.
Richard Levi could only add 11 before he went for 168, caught behind off Napier, and four balls later Rory Kleinveldt (14) was caught at deep point off Reece Topley. Olly Stone added 20 for the last wicket with Azharullah but became Napier’s third victim of the morning as Essex wrapped up the innings for 444 inside the first hour.
Essex lost Jaik Mickleburgh in the third over of their reply without score, trapped LBW by Kleinveldt, but Westley was quickly in his stride reaching 26 as the visitors went to lunch on 48-1. The runs continued to flow after lunch until Kleinveldt struck twice in two overs.
Nick Browne got a thin edge of the South African to be caught by keeper Ben Duckett for the second time in the game, while Ravi Bopara could only make a single before being bowled by Kleinveldt.
At 84-3 Northants might even have held hopes of a three day victory, but Westley and Ryder would go on to dominate the rest of the day on a pitch which has proved fruitful for batting throughout the game, with the exception of Essex’s first evening collapse.
Westley, who hit 97 against Leicestershire in his comeback from a broken thumb last week, drove Rob Keogh for his 18th boundary to reach three figures in the Championship for the first time in a year and a day, the over after taking Essex into the lead shortly before the tea interval.
As in his first innings 87, Ryder reigned in his natural aggressive tendencies to playing the perfect foil for Westley, reaching 50 from 115 balls as the 150 stand was reached, the pair sharing Essex’s highest fourth wicket stand in over four years.
Westley passed 150 in 187 balls shortly before the close, while Ryder will resume the final day ten short of what would be a first century of the season.
After three successive Championship defeats Essex Coach Paul Grayson said his side had has a positive day but still have plenty of work to do.
“There’s no denying it we’ve had a tough couple of weeks in first-class cricket so it’s nice to have a good day, after losing early wickets to watch Tom and Jesse play like that was top class.
“It was about batting long and batting big and at the moment we’ve got two players that have played really well, Tom has been in great form since he’s come back from his broken thumb.
“We’re up against it and we’ve still got a lot of work to do in the morning, we’re going to have to bat well first thing.”
Northants coach David Ripley said his side were still hopeful of forcing victory, but admitted they would need early wickets with the new ball in the morning.
“I thought we stuck to our tasks pretty well, there were some signs of deterioration [in the wicket] we hoped with a lead in the bank it would do a little bit more for us but it’s held together pretty well and meant a hard stint in the field.
“We’ve got the new ball in the morning, if we knock these two guys over they’ll get a bit twitchy again, but if we don’t I’m sure they’ll save the game.”