Hampshire, almost unstoppable towards the end of last season, were close to trouncing woeful Worcestershire inside two days here. Rumbled for 132 first up, the visitors crumpled to 53 for 7 second time around and looked set for an innings defeat until Vikram Solanki left his shell and started playing some shots.
On a surface given the all clear by pitch inspector Tony Pigott, last year's Second Division runners-up subsided in alarmingly meek fashion in the face of a nasty but not catastrophic first innings deficit of 84. Apart from captain Solanki – who survived an appeal for caught behind off the bowling of Chris Tremlett before scoring – only Ben Smith of the top eight reached double figures.
Solanki finally found some support in the shape of No 9 Chris Whelan, however. And, having been largely content to block, the former England one-day player crashed seamer David Balcombe for six over cover as Worcestershire avoided total humiliation and started to build a small lead.
With two days to go, only a lot of bad weather – and a fair bit is forecast – or an astonishing turnaround can prevent Hampshire from carrying on where they left off in 2008. Four wins from the last five games transformed them from relegation candidates to title tilters and many people believe they are now capable of going better than last year's third place.
As for Worcestershire, this match has been a rude awakening with too many batsmen getting out too softly. Yesterday's procession began with Stephen Moore playing on against a Tremlett delivery which kept a little low and swiftly gathered pace after Daryl Mitchell snicked Dominic Cork into the slips while pushing forward.
Smith was brilliantly caught by Michael Carberry, who dived forward to hold a skimmer in the covers before Moeen Ali turned James Tomlinson gently to square leg. Steve Davis pushed forward but only edged, Gareth Batty snicked a weak drive and when Kabir Ali fell lbw to Tomlinson, with 24 overs remaining, the end looked nigh.
Solanki decided otherwise. Encouraged by Whelan's straight bat, he counter-attacked to reach 50 with eight fours as well as that six. Together they added 97 before Whelan edged a last-over cut against Tremlett.
Hampshire's batting had been far from faultless. But in Liam Dawson – who signed off last season with a maiden championship century against Nottinghamshire – they look to have found a real gem. The 19-year-old all-rounder made 66 in wonderfully polished fashion before he was last out, swinging his bat at Matt Mason.