Essex were left facing the follow-on as Northamptonshire totally dominated the second day of the LV= County Championship Division Two clash at Colchester.
Needing to reach 382 to steer clear of that possibility, Essex reached the close on 187 for five in reply to a formidable score of 531 from their promotion-chasing opponents.
Among those to depart was Indian Test star Gautam Gambhir, who was making his debut for the county. He had moved serenely to 31 without looking in any trouble when he chopped on against Steven Crook shortly after tea.
The paceman struck another significant blow immediately afterwards when he found a way through the defence of Ravi Bopara, who was bowled for 12.
Crook's double strike followed the early departure of Jaik Mickleburgh, caught behind from a tentative push against Trent Copeland.
As Essex continued to slump, Greg Smith became an lbw victim of Muhammad Azhar Ullah for 41 while Ben Foakes' lack of footwork resulted in him being caught behind to provide Copeland with his second wicket and leave Essex with half their side back in the pavilion for 103.
Ryan ten Doeschate and James Foster then set about giving the Essex total some sort of respectability, putting together an unbroken partnership of 84 before the close - at which point they had 47 and 39 respectively.
Even so, it was hard to see the visitors being denied a victory during the next couple of days that would further enhance their dreams of securing Division One status for next summer.
Earlier, Northamptonshire made progress with ease on a placid pitch after resuming on 343 for five.
In the morning session they added a further 138 for the loss of one wicket, that of Rob Keogh who was bowled by Graham Napier.
Keogh's departure paved the way for Crook to join Andrew Hall and put together a century partnership. While Hall was content to play the supporting role, Crook went boldly for his strokes in striking 63 from 70 balls with the aid of eight fours and a six.
He finally provided Monty Panesar with his second wicket when cutting into the hands of Gambhir at slip.
That opened the door for off-spinner Smith to claim the last three wickets - including that of Hall, whose 63 spanned 150 deliveries but contained 10 boundaries.