Worcestershire 120 (Mitchell 41, Steyn 3-25) and 120 for 8 (Abbot 5-35) require a further 128 run Hampshire 191 and 176 (Alsop 64, Dawson 39, Parnell 4-23, Tongue 4-38)
A hat-trick for the South African pace bowler Kyle Abbott as evening sunshine flooded across Worcester all but settled the battle of the bottom two in Hampshire's favour and gave them renewed hopes of salvaging their Division One status, as well as perhaps consigning Worcestershire to yet another relegation in their perpetual up-and-down existence.
Abbott admitted last week that he had been struggling for inspiration in his second season at Hampshire after abandoning international cricket to play out his days in county cricket. A tweak to his contract, a few wickets last week at Chelmsford in a match where Hampshire were trounced by an innings, and the uplifting sight of an uneven, seaming Worcester pitch on which 24 wickets tumbled on the second day was all he needed to put the struggles behind him.
Abbott returned the first hat-trick for Hampshire since Billy Taylor in 2006: Joe Clarke, the only batsman in the top six to make double figures, fell for 33 as he edged one that kept low; Josh Tongue, advanced in the order in a desperate attempt to keep Ed Barnard until the morning, was yorked; and Barnard then fell lbw to one that cut back markedly, completing a pair in the day. Abbott finished with 5 for 35 with the chance of the last two wickets on the morrow; Worcestershire need a further 128.
Years fell from Hampshire's experienced international attack as the ball seamed past the outside edge, as it has for two days. They scented a victim with every ball. Abbott, a domineering and robust figure again, felt his cares depart, his fellow South African Dale Steyn could imagine a Test career with stories still to tell, and Fidel Edwards made 36 seem no age at all.
It took one ball for Worcestershire's second-innings task to appear forlorn, Daryl Mitchell, the one batsman to offer concerted resistance first time around, jabbing Abbott to first slip. A hush fell upon New Road; a vital component removed. Steyn picked off Tom Fell and Alex Milton with ease. Brett D'Oliveira was gated by Abbott, Ben Cox edged Edwards' outswinger to the wicketkeeper and, although he waited for the decision, the umpires were right to send him packing. Hampshire took the extra half-hour only to be thwarted by desperate ninth-wicket resistance and, ultimately, bad light shortly after seven o'clock.
Barring third-morning miracles, it suddenly looks dismal for Worcestershire. Elsewhere, Lancashire have salvaged a tie at Taunton and Yorkshire are putting up stubborn resistance at Trent Bridge. Surrey, champions elect, are next in line. Worcestershire's young side has many admirable qualities, but top-order resilience is not one of them and the retention of Clarke, their prize batting asset, will be much harder if they go down.
Worcestershire were slightly off the pace at the start of the day - 68 for 4 in reply to 191 - and to be dismissed for 120 in a further 16.2 overs served to deepen their predicament. Steyn breaking the innings with two wickets in four balls, D'Oliveira and Barnard both edging balls that snaked away.
Hampshire's lead was 71 and, on such a surface, they only needed to stretch it to 200 to feel in charge. To fall to 25 for 4 was not ideal, a reminder of the promise of Worcestershire's young attack. But the make-up of struggling sides can be curious in late season, the residue of decisions taken to challenge players not at their best, which explains the decisive presence of Tom Alsop at No. 6 and Liam Dawson eye-catchingly low at No. 8, as they compiled 77 in 19 overs. Wayne Parnell's intervention as he removed both just before tea helped him to 4 for 23 on his home Championship debut but it came too late.
Dawson, of course, has pedigree at eight. He made 66 against India in Chennai there in his first Test innings in 2016, the highest debut score ever made by a batsman in that position. But only three Tests followed, plus a sprinkling of limited-over matches. At 28, further England opportunities might follow, but if they don't, his challenge to achieve personal fulfilment is not dissimilar to that of Abbott.
About the time Alsop and Dawson turned this match Hampshire's way, a ripple of applause for Alsop's fifty could be heard in the Ladies Pavilion where tea and cake was being dispensed with military efficiency.
"Is that a wicket?" a Worcestershire member asked hopefully.
"No, it's a cheese scone, dear," came the reply.
Alan Bennett would have a field day here. But the confused response was understandable considering the surreal conversation that had just taken place. The previous customer had looked at a line of almond slices with slightly different pastry edges and said: "We used to call them strikers, centre backs and midfielders when I was at school."
The realisation that almond slices in at least one Worcester school were named after football, not cricket, perhaps goes some way to explaining Worcestershire's never-ending challenge in maintaining life in Division One. Time evidently for Worcestershire's cake bakers to descend upon the public schools and put a stop to it.