COUNTY CHAMPIONSHIP DIVISION ONE, Chelmsford:
CLOSE OF PLAY, DAY THREE: Essex 268 & 367, Durham 177 & 31-1
Essex 5 pts, Durham 3 pts
Matt Walker hit his first century of the season in any form of cricket
Reigning champions Durham will go into the final day at Chelmsford still needing 428 runs if they are to deny relegated Essex a season-ending win
Matt Walker hit a first century of 2010 as Essex, 91 ahead on first innings, piled up 367 second time round.
Walker (105) was well supported by Alastair Cook (68), Tony Palladino (66) and James Foster (64).
But Durham, set 459 to win, then lost opener Mark Stoneman before an early, bad light-enforced close on 31-1.
When play ended nine overs ahead of schedule, Essex were in a strong position to bid farewell to Division One on a winning note.
And it will need bad weather or an extraordinary effort from the Durham batsmen to deny already relegated Essex victory.
The day had started on an encouraging note for Durham after the home side had resumed on 103-1, as they captured four wickets for just 17.
Among them was Cook, who added only seven to his overnight 61 before falling lbw playing back to left-arm spinner Ian Blackwell.
Either side of Cook's departure, paceman Chris Rushworth removed Jaik Mickleburgh, Mark Pettini and Tom Westley in the space of 13 deliveries at a personal cost of two runs.
But any hopes Durham may have entertained of making further quick inroads into the innings were ruined by Walker, his confidence boosted by a freshly-signed one-year contract, and captain Foster.
They seized the initiative with a partnership of 133 in 42 overs before Foster, having made 64, edged a simple catch to slip off leg-spinner Scott Borthwick.
Walker, quick to pull or cut anything short, went on to make his first ton of the summer 105 with the help of 16 fours and a six before Dale Benkenstein took a fine catch at extra cover.
By then Palladino was dishing out further punishment to the toiling Durham bowlers as he went on to hit his career-best 66 from 61 balls.
His aggressive contribution contained 11 fours and a six before providing Di Venuto with his third catch of the innings while employing the reverse sweep.
Both Walker and Palladino fell to Blackwell who finished with 4-70, Rushworth also picking up four wickets at a cost of 90 from 20 overs.
Palladino then made a quick impact with the new ball, bowling Stoneman shortly before the failing light intervened.