Surrey will take a lead of 23 points into the final stages of the Vitality County Championship as they chase a hat-trick of titles.

Victory over Essex by 145 runs at the Kia Oval ensured Rory Burns’ side are in a strong position to become the first team to achieve the feat in almost half a century as they contemplate the final five matches.

And Sunday’s win over Kent in a rain-affected Vitality Blast match took them four points clear at the top of South Group as the T20 qualifiers come to a climax in the coming days.

Director of cricket Alec Stewart – due to step down later this year – wants to land the elusive Blast.

But it is the Championship which has always mattered most to Surrey and following a massive defeat against Hampshire in May, which reduced their lead to two points, wins over Worcestershire and now Essex have strengthened their position at the summit.

The Essex match attracted more than 6,000 spectators on the opening day and almost 14,000 in all.

Essex were handicapped by the loss of in-form batter Jordan Cox, who went off the field feeling unwell early in the match and later had his appendix removed.

They had seen Jamie Smith make 100 out of Surrey’s 262 – celebrating his England Test call-up, alongside Ollie Pope, Dan Lawrence and Gus Atkinson – and found an attack led by Dan Worrall (three for 40) and Jordan Clark (three for 33) relishing the seam-friendly conditions. Only Matt Critchley (48) and Phil Walter (64) kept the deficit down to 82 but despite Smith underlining his class by making another accomplished 70, the match was in the balance when Surrey’s second innings lurched to 127 for six.

The hosts were grateful to Ryan Patel, a regular member of the side two years ago but confined to occasional appearances since, for making them bulletproof. The left-hander moved from cruise to overdrive as wickets fell at the other end, completing his fourth first-class century with the 14th of 15 fours – to which he added three sixes – as his 107 lifted Surrey to 278 all out.

Set an unlikely 361, Essex relied on former South Africa opener Dean Elgar to lead their resistance, his 60 ended by pulling Worrall to deep mid-wicket. Walter’s 56 further delayed Surrey but he became a victim of seamer Tom Lawes, whose four for 36 marked his return from two months out through a heel injury. Essex were finally rounded up for 215, Clark’s three for 56 further evidence of his invaluable role.

Somerset took over at the head of the chasing pack, with Surrey due to visit them in September.

Rain washed out the visit of Vitality Blast basement boys Middlesex to The Oval on Friday night and threatened to do likewise to the Kent match on Sunday. Eventually it relented to allow a shortened contest, Surrey’s makeshift side reaching 103 for five from ten overs with Laurie Evans top-scoring on 25. Another interruption reduced the reply to eight overs, Kent needing 87 but falling short at 81 for three despite the efforts of Feroze Khushi (35) and Tawanda Muyeye (22).

Surrey will be aiming to cement a home quarter-final place when they take on Somerset at Taunton on Friday and Essex at Chelmsford on Sunday.

By Richard Spiller