County move closer to decisive victory
Needing to reach 382 to steer clear of that possibility, Essex reached the close on 187-5 in reply to a formidable 531 by 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 also struck another blow immediately afterwards when he found a way through the defence of Ravi Bopara, who was bowled for 12.
Crook’s double blow followed the early departure of Jaik Mickleburgh, caught behind from a tentative push against Trent Copeland.
As Essex continued to disintegrate, Smith became an lbw victim of Muhammad Azharullah 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.
With nothing in the pitch to help the bowlers, it was nothing more than a feeble response form the top-order but at least Ryan ten Doeschate and James Foster set about giving the Essex total some sort of respectability as they put together an unbroken partnership of 84 before the close - at which point they had reached 47 and 39 respectively.
Even so, it is hard to see the visitors being denied a victory during the next couple of days that would further enhance their dreams of Division One status next summer.
Earlier, Northamptonshire made progress with almost embarrassing 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.
But his 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 as he struck 63 from 70 balls with the aid of eight fours and a six.
He finally provided Monty Panesar with his second wicket when he cut into the hands of Gambhir at slip to open the door for off-spinner Smith to claim the last three wickets - including that of Hall, whose 63 spanned 150 deliveries and contained 10 boundaries.
Smith claimed those successes at a cost of 86 while Panesar’s two wickets came during the course of 54 overs in which he conceded 133 runs.