Superb pace bowling from David Lucas made Northamptonshire clear favourites to clinch promotion to the First Division of the County Championship when the season closes today.
Only Essex can deny the Wantage Road side after their crushing victory over Leicestershire yesterday, but their chances of fashioning a win at Derby look remote after they were obliged to declare in arrears to have any chance of pulling off an unlikely triumph.
Left-arm seamer Lucas finished with 7 for 45 as Leicestershire were thrashed by an innings and 196 runs to give Northamptonshire a 22-point maximum and leave Essex needing nothing less than a win to enable them to go up alongside champions Kent.
After wrapping up victory with four sessions to spare, Nicky Boje's players will not know until today if they can crack open the champagne. However, there was no sign last night of the quick capitulation from Derbyshire that Essex were hoping for after declaring 118 runs behind. At the close, Derbyshire had extended their lead by 103 runs and lost only three wickets.
Claude Henderson, who hit a breezy 42, and James Benning, with 72 off 64 balls, held up Northamptonshire's charge yesterday but with Lucas finding substantial swing and Johannes van der Wath hostile pace, wickets tumbled readily.
Lucas struck immediately to remove the experienced Paul Nixon and trapped Greg Smith leg before in his next over before bowling Tom New with a swinging, full-length delivery. This gave the 31-year-old his third five-wicket haul of the campaign and when Van der Wath yorked England Under-19 batsman Josh Cobb Leicestershire had lost half their wickets for 44.
Former Surrey all-rounder Benning hit Van der Wath for four offside boundaries in one over on the way to his first half-century for his new county, then took three boundaries in an over off Lee Daggett. The innings ended, however, when he chipped Boje to Lucas at deep mid-off.
Lucas, who had yorked Henderson, notched his second seven-wicket haul of the season when Wayne White edged to Riki Wessels at second slip without troubling the scorers.
Essex, who had been 308 runs behind overnight at 166 for 2 at Derby, built solidly around 20-year-old Tom Westley's maiden century and a third-wicket partnership of 224 with Matt Walker. They declared after claiming a fourth batting bonus point to give their bowlers around two hours to make inroads into Derbyshire's second innings.
Chris Wright struck in his third over to remove Wayne Madsen and leg-spinner Danish Kaneria accounted for Chris Rogers and Greg Smith, but they will need rapid success with the ball this morning if their batsmen are to be left with an attainable fourth-innings target.
In the race for second place in the First Division, Nottinghamshire look to have done enough to finish ahead of both Somerset and Warwickshire. With a lead of 321 going into the final day, Chris Read's side will be confident of securing at least a draw, which will almost certainly be enough with Warwickshire on the brink of defeat to Lancashire at Old Trafford, where Gary Keedy took 5 for45.
After an attractive 54 from Samit Patel and a promising 37 on debut from his younger brother, Akhil, at Trent Bridge, Nottinghamshire are 236 for 7 with Read on 64 and Mark Ealham, given a guard of honour by the Sussex players on his last appearance before retirement, not out on 23.