Nottinghamshire snuffed out Hampshire's bid for a first win in six Championship matches after conceding only four wickets during a last day of solid resistance, but will have to concede that their chances of depriving Durham of a second consecutive title have all but disappeared.
Chris Read's side needed to win this to stay in touch with Durham's relentless progress but when Hampshire ended the opening day on 345 for 3 they already suspected that the best they could hope for was to avoid defeat. In the end, in that respect, they put in a satisfactory day's work but after Durham's three-day win over Warwickshire the gap between Nottinghamshire and the defending champions looks too wide to close, even though the two will meet at the Riverside next month.
Required to follow on 247 runs in arrears despite topping 400 for only the third time this season, the home side were grateful to see Mark Wagh's elegant batsmanship earn him his third 100 of the season but it was a small consolation in a match that again exposed the most frequent shortcoming in their effort to remain competitive – the frailty of their top order batting. Only Read's unbeaten 119 in the first innings, the fulcrum of a recovery from 126-5 to 407 all out, kept them in this game.
Nottinghamshire have not put up a 100 for the first wicket for more than two years and among the six opening batsmen used this season only two have managed a half century, the best individual effort being Scott Newman's 87 on his debut against Somerset at Taunton.
Newman was hired from Surrey to bolster the top order but even he seems to be falling victim to the collective malaise. Out third ball yesterday, caught behind driving loosely at seamer David Griffiths, he has had two ducks in his last three innings.
Mick Newell, the Nottinghamshire coach, said the title was "Durham's to lose". His Durham counterpart, Geoff Cook, admitted that "if we play well against Nottinghamshire and Somerset at home next month, the cushion we have now might be enough."
That cushion stands at 37pts after Nottinghamshire picked up 10pts here, which looks a daunting deficit with four matches left, though it would be cut to 15 by the time Durham play again if Nottinghamshire can come back from bottom-of-the-table Worcestershire next week with maximum points.
Yesterday, after Matthew Wood had been leg-before playing forward to Dimitri Mascarenhas, Wagh and Samit Patel shared a stand of 110 in 34 overs for the third wicket before Patel, dropped on 16, was caught at silly point off bat and pad off Imran Tahir for 48.
Tahir, finding some turn from a pitch that was left well grassed but has played slow and low, struck again to bowl Bilal Shafayat for six, but there was no shifting Wagh, who batted more than four and a half hours to be 136 not out when handshakes were exchanged, having hit 20 boundaries.
Hampshire's bowling is not strong – Chris Tremlett is so out of form he was not picked here – and while they might have joined the race for second place with a win here it seems more likely they will be concerned with trying to avoid relegation.
Second place is worth pursuing now that the England and Wales Cricket Board have increased the prize money for the Championship. There is £225,000 up for the runners-up, which should ensure that Nottinghamshire, Somerset and Lancashire stay focused.