THE LV County Championship promotion race is wide open after Hampshire lost their first game of the season - to Ravi Bopara-inspired Essex at Colchester.
Hampshire were beaten by two wickets, with Bopara’s unbeaten 48 getting Essex to a modest target of 133, after the visitors were bowled out for just 171 in their second innings.
Danny Briggs (4-61) and Liam Dawson (4-58) were outstanding for Hampshire and so nearly guided Jimmy Adams’ side to an unlikely win,.
It was fitting that two homegrown slow left-armers should bowl so well while wearing black armbands in memory of the late, great Peter Sainsbury.
But on an absorbing final day which saw 17 wickets fall for 224 runs on a spin-friendly pitch, Bopara showed the qualities and patience needed to see his side home.
Hampshire had lurched from one disaster to another after resuming on 83-1 - a lead of 44. They lost nine wickets for 75 runs during a chaotic morning session.
After Michael Carberry (56) was caught in the slips, Matt Coles showed attack was the best form of defence before holing out to long-off for 36 (21 balls, three sixes, three fours).
Bopara was the only batsman to master the conditions.
Even when wickets were tumbling around him he refused to panic, combining solid defence with an ability to wait for the right ball to attack.
There were not too many loose deliveries on offer but when they did arrive, he helped himself to seven fours and two sixes.
Coming in after the fall of the first wicket, when Nick Browne (six) gave left-arm spinner Liam Dawson the charge and was stumped, Bopara watched Tom Westley (14), Jesse Ryder (four) and James Foster (duck) depart in the space of five overs as Essex slumped to 29 for four.
All of them were victims of Briggs, who conceded three boundaries to Ryan ten Doeschate (18), before bowling the all-rounder to add to his tally.
Greg Smith (nine) and Tim Phillips (one) were then removed by Dawson, both snapped up at slip by Sean Ervine, to leave Essex still requiring 53 with only three wickets remaining.
Graham Napier (19) carried Essex to 108 before driving Dawson to Matt Coles at mid-off to set up a tense finish.
Bopara drove Briggs for ten in two balls to relive the pressure, leaving Sajid Mahmood to see his side to their target with two successive boundaries against Dawson.
In the end, however, it was Bopara who earned the major plaudits as Essex gained a measure of revenge for the 470-run thrashing they suffered against Hampshire last month.
Fourth-placed Essex gained 17 points on Hampshire to close the gap on second place to 18. Third-placed Surrey, meanwhile, are only five points adrift of Hampshire having played the same number of games.
Leaders Worcestershire extended their lead at the top to 12 points, with a game in hand, but are without Saeed Ajmal for the rest of the season.
Hampshire now have a month until their next Championship match, against Kent on August 15.