A wearing third-day pitch played its part in the fluctuations as both teams enjoyed ascendancy, but it was by no means the only culprit in Northamptonshire's poor batting in the morning or Surrey's collapse in the second session. Joey Benjamin and Tony Pigott were the star turns when Northamptonshire were skittled for 59 in 114 minutes, Pigott taking his match return to 11 for 111, while it was the contrast of seam, spin and nerves that accounted for Surrey.
That they came so close, Surrey owed much to a 92-ball half century from Adam Hollioake. Lacking in neither responsibility nor clean, entertaining hitting, his innings emphasised why he has attracted the eye of the England selectors.
Benjamin, on the other hand, must be wondering if he will be in the frame again, despite performances like yesterday's when, with 3 for three in 19 deliveries, he whipped out the Northamptonshire top order. Right from the start, he was in the groove, Russell Warren turning his second ball to square leg, where Darren Bicknell gained the nod with a fine low catch.
A spectacular dive across first slip by wicket-keeper Graham Kersey brought Benjamin his second wicket, when Alan Fordham's footwork proved too marginal to master some uneven bounce. A more straightforward catch by Kersey put Pigott in the picture and Tim Walton out of it, and when Allan Lamb edged Benjamin to first slip, thoughts were entertained about lowest scores.
As it was, it took a last wicket, and ultimately match-winning partnership of 16 between Craig Atkins and Paul Taylor to save them the embarrassment of their lowest score, 46, since 1933. Otherwise only Rob Bailey and Capel, playing late and low, had shown how to counter the pitch and the bowling. Capel's unnecessary uppercutting of a wide ball to third man, however, summed up Northamptonshire's inept display.
The afternoon must have raised their supporters' spirits, particularly the sight of leg spinner Kumble twisting and teasing the Surrey batsmen into knots. There was much to admire, too, in Capel's persistent attack on an off-stump line to mirror the Surrey pair's performance, while a marvellous one-handed catch by Kevin Curren, running some 25 yards from slip to remove Kersey, epitomised Northamptonshire's gritty determination to remain at the top of the Championship ladder.
While Bicknell and Alec Stewart were helping themselves to 29 runs off Curren's opening three overs, it seemed that Surrey would cruise to victory. Certainly the nervous hours that followed provoked thoughts of what might happen when Lamb eventually threw the ball to Kumble.
The first-ball wicket of Bicknell for the Indian, well taken by Lamb at bat-pad, instantly put the proverbial feline among the Oval pigeons. However, Kersey, Pigott, Richard Nowell and Benjamin all provided Hollioake with good support as the tension built towards the kind of finish that gives cricket a good name.