Essex will require three runs with only one wicket in hand to avoid a last day follow on after reaching stumps on day three in Canterbury on 289 for nine.
Responding to Kent’s 441 all out, Essex lost wickets at regular intervals in this Specsavers Championship top-of-the-table clash, but a priceless 10th wicket stand worth 22 between David Masters and Matt Dixon has at least given the visitors a great chance to avoid batting again on the final day of the campaign.
Batting for the first time by 11.35am on day three, Essex lost two wickets in the short 15-over spell through to lunch as Kent maintained their grip on events despite a plucky knock from No4 Dan Lawrence, who rode his luck to score 88 having edged through the cordon when on five only to see Will Gidman down a chance at third slip on the same score.
The visitors and second division champions elect, lost Varun Chopra, lbw for 25 to Darren Stevens, then Tom Westley (8), caught at square leg by Sean Dickson off the bowling of Mitch Claydon in the over before the interval.
Kent maintained a check on the run rate in the afternoon session and also collected a further three wickets in the process as Nick Browne (36), Ravi Bopara (22) and Adam Wheater all trooped back to the pavilion.
Browne edged the 12th ball after the resumption to Sam Billings off Mitch Claydon then Bopara, digging down late on a full ball from Hardus Viljoen, also nicked through to the Kent keeper to secure the seamer's 50th first-class wicket of the summer.
Just before tea Wheater’s miscued pull against Matt Coles flew to deep square leg where Sean Dickson took a comfortable catch.
Viljeon continued to shine after tea by having Kishen Velani (22) and Will Rhodes (3) both caught at second slip by James Tredwell off successive overs.
With 27 needed to avoid the follow-on and just 12 short of his fourth championship hundred of the summer, Lawrence inexplicably holed out to long-on against the off-spin of Tredwell.
Masters, in his farewell appearance for Essex, was given a guard of honour by the Kent side as he walked to the middle, but Tredwell soon struck again by ripping an arm ball though Paul Walter’s defensive gate to peg back the left-hander’s off stump to leave Essex nine down.
At the start of the day Kent had secured the second division runner’s up spot upon reaching 400. Resuming on their overnight score of 387 for seven, the hosts motored past 400 with a fearsome back-foot cut by Coles that registered a fifth batting bonus point.
In trying to repeat the stroke in the next over Coles nicked to Adam Wheater to depart for 32 and give Masters, the former Kent seamer, his first wicket in the match. Masters struck again with a lifter that Viljoen could only glove to third slip then Stevens, on 136 and just four short of equalling his season’s best, clipped to deep backward square to give Dixon a five for 124 return.