AARON Beard toppled the Middlesex top order after Adam Wheater’s chanceless 83 not out put Essex on course for the Bob Willis Trophy final.

Fast bowler Beard took three wickets in 21 balls after tea to leave Middlesex with their backs against the wall at the County Ground.

And Beard now feels he is bowling better than ever before.

“My bowling is probably the best it has been ever been,” said Beard.

“I’m always trying to get quicker but I also want to be more accurate.

“It is always good to take some wickets when they are needed.

“I haven’t really taken many wickets in the last few games so was thinking what I could do to mend that, and all I thought was to back myself.

“Following Harmy (Simon Harmer) at the other end is always exciting because he’s a magician, while Ports (Jamie Porter) and Cooky (Sam Cook) set the tone, so it was nice to contribute with some wickets.”

The visitors did tip-toe into a lead but having ended the day on 123 for six, a slender lead of 25, they’ll need an extraordinary effort from the tail to set Essex a tricky fourth-innings chase.

Earlier, Wheater posted a three-year high to give Essex a commanding first-innings lead of 98, as they pocketed four bonus points.

After 15 wickets had fallen on the opening day at the County Ground, batting seemed much easier for the most part on the day two.

Wheater used the friendlier conditions to his advantage with a mature innings, partnered well by Ryan ten Doeschate and Simon Harmer.

The home side’s morning, in which they lost just three wickets, was spoiled slightly by a back spasm suffered by ten Doeschate.

The Dutchman had seemingly run an innocuous single unharmed, but felt a problem while scratching out his guard.

He needed five minutes of treatment on the pitch before retiring hurt on 31, having put on 35 with Wheater.

Simon Harmer continued with Wheater and took Essex to a precious batting point.

It added to their three bowling points from the first day, and with Derbyshire’s batting woes, looks set to be the important point which will secure them a place at Lord’s later this month – if they win this match.

Wheater, who hasn’t scored a County Championship century since returning from a stint at Hampshire in 2016, cruised past a fifty in 76 balls.

He and all-rounder Harmer put on 72 before Harmer was lbw - the first of three quick wickets for Martin Andersson.

The fast bowler then had Aaron Beard and Sam Cook caught in the slips in the 62nd over to bring ten Doeschate back to the crease, albeit with Dan Lawrence as his runner.

The 40-year-old, who didn't field, added 12 more runs to his early tally before he departed to hand Andersson a fourth – Andersson returning figures of four for 38.

Jamie Porter was the final man to go, caught behind off Tim Murtagh (3-50), to leave Wheater stranded on his highest first-class county score since he reached 88 versus Somerset in August 2017.

All eyes were now on the Bob Willis Trophy’s leading wicket-taker Harmer and whether he could spin his usual magic.

Instead it was the seamers, in particular Beard, who took centre stage from the Hayes Close End with incessant line and length consistency.

Sam Cook was the first to pocket an early scalp as Sam Robson, on likely his final innings of the summer, pushed to Harmer at second slip.

Off-spinner Harmer, who was a threat throughout his 21 overs, picked up Nick Gubbins leg before on the cusp of tea.

Beard then entered the attack and found pace to accompany accuracy, demonstrated perfectly by sending Steve Eskinazi’s off-stump catapulting with a beautiful delivery which straightened.

Max Holden had provided a rear-guard with 37, which included a pulled six off Porter, but became Beard’s second victim when he also lost his off-peg.

Middlesex, still in arrears, were then 84 for five when a driving Andersson edged Beard to second slip.

John Simpson and former Essex loanee Robbie White took their side into the lead with a 38-run partnership.

But Harmer returned for a second spell to pin White leg-before to set up a likely three-day finish.