SPIN wizard Saeed Ajmal shot Worcestershire back to the summit of Division Two with a stunning 13-wicket haul to down Essex.
Second-placed Hampshire are poised to leap-frog the New Road outfit when their LV= County Championship game with Leicestershire ends today, but Steve Rhodes’ men will still have a game in hand on their promotion rivals.
This victory - by a margin of 72 runs – was Worcestershire’s third triumph in the space of five matches this term and represents an excellent start to the campaign.
Pakistan ace Saeed returned superb figures of 7-19 from 13.5 overs to almost single-handedly run through the Essex second innings as the visitors were dismissed for just 136 in their pursuit of 209 to win.
The wily 36-year-old off-spinner has nearly as many varieties as Heinz and claimed match figures of 13-94. He now has 28 victims in three games since re-joining the County as their overseas player.
In the morning session, Worcestershire’s remaining two wickets could only occupy the crease for the first 8.2 overs of day three, adding just 15 runs to the overnight 105-8, as former England spinner Monty Panesar finished with 5-23.
While Saeed mopped up the last seven wickets to fall, it was good work by Jack Shantry, who took the first three, that set the platform for Worcestershire’s victory charge.
Shantry had Mark Pettini expertly caught by a diving Matt Pardoe at midwicket and, in his next over, beat Tom Westley’s defensive push to win an lbw appeal.
However, Shantry’s third wicket owed much to the brilliance of wicketkeeper Ben Cox, who completed his second leg-side stumping of the game to dismiss Jaik Mickleburgh for 10.
The gloveman is really coming of age this season – both with behind and in front of the timbers – and is justifying the faith shown in him by director of cricket Rhodes since he was handed a First-Class debut as a callow 17-year-old.
With the visitors rocking, their predicament worsened with Saeed’s introduction to the attack and the Pakistan mystery spinner struck in the final over before lunch, firing a quicker ball through Greg Smith’s defences.
After the break, Kiwi batsman Jess Ryder was adjudged lbw to Saeed, who then bowled Essex skipper James Foster via his pad with a delivery that kept low.
Graham Napier edged a Saeed delivery to first slip where Daryl Mitchell flicked out a foot and the ball ballooned to Ross Whiteley, who took a reflex catch at leg slip.
That left Essex in deep trouble at 85-7, but the eighth-wicket pairing of Ben Foakes and Matt Salisbury took the attack to Worcester.
They put on 50 in 10 overs, but that man Saeed broke their stubborn resistance with an arm ball that beat Salisbury’s forward prod to rap him on the pad.
The killer quicker ball accounted for Foakes (34) too with an lbw so plumb the batsman must have been tempted to walk before the umpire raised his finger.
Panesar clearly wasn’t up to the challenge of facing his fellow spinner and lofted his first ball to mid-off where Saeed ran round to fittingly take the catch to win the game.