Middlesex 142 and 40 for 3 need a further 305 to beat Somerset 236 and 250 for 9 dec (Hildreth 109, Patel 5-92)
So it comes down to the final day. After six months of competition, relegation will be decided in the final few sessions of the season.
It was the weather that delayed Somerset most on the third day. Gentle but persistent rain took the players off the pitch at around 1.40pm and never relented long enough for a re-start. The forecast is better for the final day, so Middlesex will need to produce a magnificent performance with the bat if they are not to join Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire as sides relegated the year after winning the Championship (unless Warwickshire do them a favour by beating Hampshire).
There is some precedent. In 2016, Middlesex chased 302 in 45 overs here to clinch an unlikely victory that helped take them to the title. And in 2015, they chased 402 to pull off another memorable win on the same ground.
But this pitch is different. While it has slowed, it still offers generous assistance to the spin bowlers. And you wonder if Middlesex, a not especially happy camp, might have allowed the look of this surface to prey on their minds even before a ball was bowled.
It is a mercy, at least, that matters will be decided on the pitch. There will be no intervention from lawyers or administrators demanding the sort of recount that saw Hampshire reprieved and Durham relegated after the competition finished in 2016. However much Middlesex may have complained about this pitch in private – they have been dubbed “Moaning-sex” by wags around these parts – there will be no points penalty imposed. They have also confirmed that they have no intention whatsoever to explore legal options to overturn the deduction of two points for a slow over rate at The Oval last month (a game abandoned after a crossbow bolt landed on the pitch).
Good for them. They were unfortunate that the ECB took such an inflexible approach to the incident – Middlesex unable to make up their tardy over rate after the game was called off – but nobody benefits once the game is dragged in front of lawyers. Well, nobody except lawyers. A period in Division Two isn’t a death sentence.
The first 20 overs of the Middlesex second innings provided little reason for optimism for them. Despite Sam Robson surviving a run-out chance before he had faced a ball – Nick Compton called him through for the sharpest of singles – and a dropped catch at extra-cover, as he pushed at one from Jack Leach but Tom Abell was unable to cling on the chance, they were still three down within an hour.
Leach may have been deemed surplus to requirements by England, but he provided a fine demonstration of his abilities here after taking the new ball for the second time in the match. Yes, the pitch is providing him with assistance but bowling on such surfaces demands a certain composure and Leach must have an outstanding chance of going to Sri Lanka next year. He could yet feature in the Ashes if Moeen Ali suffers an injury; it seems unlikely that England will go into a Test with Mason Crane as their one spinner.
Leach’s first wicket came when he forced Robson into a forward defensive, but spun the ball enough to take the edge. The second came when Compton, back rather than forward, was undone by a little extra pace and more than a little low bounce.
But the best delivery of all might have been the one that accounted for Dawid Malan. Drawn forward by Dominic Bess’ second ball, Malan was unfortunate to see it turn, bounce and be well held by Steve Davies, who was awarded his county cap during the day.
Earlier James Hildreth completed his second century of the campaign to take Somerset’s lead well over 300. He struck three fours – each one more beautiful than the last, including a rasping cut that was played with both feet off the ground – in Steven Finn’s first over of the day, showing again what a high-class player he can be. Ravi Patel described him as “the difference between the teams”.
Patel was the beneficiary while wickets tumbled as Somerset’s batsmen selflessly attempted to set-up a declaration. He followed his career-best first-innings figures with a second five-for to take his overhaul match-haul to 12 for 173. Afterwards he felt he may yet have a key role to play with the bat, too.
“I knew I had a chance of doing well, but 12 wickets is beyond anything I could have hoped for,” he said. “It has been a dream for me. The game hasn’t panned out as we would have liked so far, but that doesn’t mean we can’t save it. The pitch is easier to bat on than on day one because the turn is slower.
“We faced a similar situation in 2014 against Lancashire when we had to bat the day out to stay up and we did it. I was No. 11 in that game and it was the nine and ten batsmen in when the game ended so I will never forget it.”
All of which means Middlesex are likely to keep a very close eye on events at Edgbaston on Thursday. That game was broadcast on the electronic screen at Taunton after rain intervened.
It also means that Marcus Trescothick may well go into the 2018 season with his dream of playing in Somerset’s first Championship-winning side still alive. The decision to part company with Matt Maynard is likely to see the club embrace a coaching staff who are once again steeped in the culture of Somerset cricket, with Andy Hurry and Jason Kerr tipped to fill the roles of director of cricket and head coach respectively. The new chief executive, Lee Cooper, is a former 2nd XI player for the club, too.
Indeed, you wonder how much progress they made since they parted company with another man steeped in Somerset cricket, Brian Rose, after growing tired of finishing second. This year they have flirted with life in the second division and might reflect that finishing second wasn’t so bad.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo