Roberts rolls on

Northants 214 & 419-7 Essex 308
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This was one of those days when cricket acts out its charming ritual, guaranteed to baffle any visiting American, beneath a big blue sky. There was no apparent urgency as the action lazily unfolded, and yet an unseemly shuffle of wickets either side of the tea interval could have set up an intriguing Monday.

The excitement had belonged to Friday, when a large crowd witnessed a commanding Graham Gooch century, a pitch invasion by a startled deer and a mild-mannered ball that, having disappeared out of the ground for 14 overs, suddenly took to the swinging life on its return, helping Paul Taylor to seven wickets. Northamptonshire openers Richard Montgomerie and David Roberts then cancelled out the home side's first-innings advantage of 94 and began yesterday on 133, looking determined to benefit further on a flat strip.

This was the Championship debut of 19-year-old Roberts, and he was keen not to jeopardise his place with a foolish stroke. By the time he snicked to a tumbling Gooch at slip he had confirmed his promise. Montgomerie, of course, has already done that. He laboured more than an hour for the 19 morning runs needed for his century, reaching it with an elegant clip to the square-leg boundary off Ronnie Irani, and pottered on for a further 80 minutes until Peter Such induced a failed attempt at sweeping.

The morning's two wickets, Roberts' and Rob Bailey's, were claimed by the persevering seamer Steve Andrew, who first appeared in Hampshire's colours in 1984. Paul Prichard's Essex options were limited by injuries to Mark Ilott and Darren Cousins but the home side continued through a long day, using three seamers and four spinners in an attempt to cramp the batsmen's style. On a pitch like this his smothering front pad can be pushed forward with confidence, and in mid-afternoon Mal Loye and Russell Warren seemed to be taking the game away from Essex until Loye got bored, scampered down the wicket to Paul Grayson and misread the left armer's spin.

At this point, and again with seven wickets down just after tea, the game turned Essex's way. But Northamptonshire, marshalled by Tony Penberthy, continued their occupation into the evening. Of course, the odds should be against the team chasing well over 300 for a win tomorrow, but the Essex top order has a sleek look about it. Northamptonshire, without Curtly Ambrose, have seen quite enough of Gooch and Nasser Hussain, for example, to know the shape they are in. They, and perhaps John Emburey, hold the key to the last day.