Hampshire coach Adi Birrell defended his side’s decision to bat first after they were bowled out for their lowest total in two years.

Off-spinner Simon Harmer snared his fourth Specsavers County Championship five-wicket haul of the season as Essex skittled Hampshire out for 118 - the visitors’ lowest first-class total since September 2017.

Birrell said: “The stats were the reason we batted first. If you look at how many teams win here batting first it makes sense.

“We are way behind in the match and we are struggling but I’m not saying the toss is the reason behind that. We can’t get away from the fact we didn’t bat well.

“It wasn’t impossible to bat out there and it wasn’t spinning square. We were bowled out in less that 40 overs which is not ideal at all.”

Harmer, who has now taken 24 scalps at Chelmsford alone this season, finished with 5-23 to elevate him back to the top of the Division One wicket-taking charts – which he shares with Lewis Gregory and Jeetan Patel, who all have 35 wickets.

Harmer’s bowling exploits were followed-up by Ravi Bopara’s fifty as Essex galloped into a lead of 29 runs, albeit for the loss of Sir Alastair Cook, Nick Browne and Tom Westley.

Going into the game, Hampshire sat in second place with the second highest acquisition of batting bonus points. With that confidence and a healthy-looking pitch, stand-in captain Sam Northeast elected to bat having won the toss, although would have regretted the decision having been bowled out by tea.

Harmer may well have landed the most telling blows to the Hampshire collapse, but it was the opening seam attack of Sam Cook and Jamie Porter who landed the first hits.

After a 40-minute delay to the start of play due to rain, Porter only needed until the third over to pin Joe Weatherley lbw.

Two balls later Porter found the outside edge of Ajinkya Rahane’s bat, as the India Test star handed Adam Wheater a catch on his return – the wicketkeeper had missed the last 10 weeks due to a thumb injured, which he damaged in the reverse fixture at the Ageas Bowl.

Essex brought up their first bowling point in just the sixth over when Sam Cook joined the party, as Tom Alsop offered up a catch to Dan Lawrence at gully.

Following another rain break, Northeast and the uber-aggressive Rilee Rossouw offered a glint of hope for the visitors with a 45-run stand but both faltered once Harmer entered the attack in the 14th over.

Bowling from the River End, Harmer trapped Northeast lbw with this ninth ball.

South African Rossouw top scored with 34 from 32 balls but his dismissal, stumped after wildly stamping down the track and swinging, left his side exposed as the final five Hampshire wickets fell for 24 runs.

Aneurin Donald’s middle stump was unearthed by a wicked Sam Cook inswinger, before James Fuller deflected Harmer to short leg.

Sam Cook completed his impressive 3-50 when Kyle Abbott was lbw.

Harmer cleaned out the tail as Keith Barker and Mason Crane, who had slapped a six over mid-wicket, were lbw.

Essex’s reply had started serenely, with 53 added for the first wicket. But Nick Browne was given a life on 11 when a firm strike breached Fuller’s upstretched hands at mid-wicket.

Fuller redeemed himself when he was brought onto bowl, as, with his fifth delivery, found the ball to straight up onto Cook’s pads, before Nick Browne was lbw to Barker in the following over.

Tom Westley quickly departed when he was bowled by Barker, but Bopara, who scored his 50 of 73 balls, and Dan Lawrence guided the hosts to the close in a strong position with a half-century partnership.

Birrell added: “We bowled well after tea but didn’t really capitalise on that and let it slip at the end. We have a mountain to climb.

“It looks a good wicket but history shows it does nip throughout the match. When you get one you can get two or three.

“We got three quick wickets but we didn’t build on that. There was a good partnership at the end but we needed to control the run rate better.”