- Essex v England, LV= Challenge Match, Chelmsford, 1st day
Swann and Bresnan avert embarrassment
A few weeks ago, when Lancashire bowled Essex out for 20, there were those within the England set-up who privately expressed concerns about the value of this game as preparation for the Ashes.
Those concerns were understandable. Despite a talented squad, Essex are currently placed in the middle of Division Two of the County Championship and, with a view to their county commitments, took the opportunity to rest three or four first-choice players for this match. Would they put up any sort of resistance?
Yet a second-string attack who had, before this game, claimed only eight first-class wickets between them this season, dismissed England's top seven for only 212. An unbroken eighth-wicket stand of 116 between Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann spared any acute embarrassment, but it was a day that suggested the surfeit of limited-overs cricket England have experienced of late has not been ideal preparation for the Ashes.
Some caution is required before anyone concludes that England's Ashes plans are in chaos. Complacency was certainly a contributory factor in one or two dismissals - notably Kevin Pietersen's - and this game was designed precisely with the aim of easing England's players back into the disciplines required for first-class cricket. It would be wrong to read too much into it.
It was an inglorious performance from England's top-order, though. Inserted by prior agreement and on a blameless pitch - Ravi Bopara, the Essex captain, later admitted he would have liked to bat but was happy to agree to England's request - each one of the top seven made a start but failed to convert it into a meaningful contribution due to some looses strokes and a lack of concentration.
There were some encouraging performances from Essex players, too. Tymal Mills, a 20-year-old left-arm fast bowler who played at the request of the England management, generated speeds in excess of 94 mph according to the television speed gun, while Tom Craddock, a 23-year-old leg-spinner who went into this game without a first-class wicket this season, claimed three in his first nine overs and demonstrated good composure in the face of Pietersen's aggression.
Pietersen had settled in against some woeful bowling. Fed a diet of full-tosses and long-hops, he eased three of his first four deliveries to the boundary and demonstrated his intent against Craddock's legspin by driving the first delivery he faced from him over mid-on for four. He was dropped moments later attempting a repeat, Craddock unable to cling on to a sharp return chance, but then tried the shot once more and was well held by a relieved bowler. Pietersen's dismissal, careless as it was, will irritate some but, in the grand scheme of things, it is more important to note that he looked fit and in fine form. He is likely to treat Ashes matches with far greater respect.
If that wicket owed something to Pietersen's impatience, the wicket of Matt Prior owed more to the traditional skills of a legbreak bowler. Drawing Prior into pushing at one outside off stump, Craddock took the outside edge with a delivery that turned appreciably on its way to the keeper.
In between times, Ian Bell was the victim of a wonderful piece of fielding. Jaik Mickleburgh, at short leg, anticipated Bell's stroke as the batsman shaped to dab-sweep and, moving sharply to his left, clung on to the catch one-handed. Bell had struggled for fluency throughout, but it was a somewhat unfortunate ending.
Earlier, Joe Root had endured a painful start to his career as an England opening batsman. Root, promoted in place of the discarded Nick Compton to allow room for Jonny Bairstow in the middle-order, got off the mark with an edge that bounced just short of the slip cordon and was later struck on the left knee by a delivery from Mills. Despite the ball appearing to hit Root on the pads, the batsman was clearly in some pain and, a few deliveries later, was drawn into poking at one from Saj Mahmood that he could have left outside off stump and edged a catch to second slip. Root spent much of the rest of the day with an ice pack on his knee, but an England team spokesman said that it was not considered a serious injury.
Mills was impressive, if inconsistent, but faded as the warmth of the day began to tell. Working up a sharp pace, he dismissed the England captain (and Mills' Essex team-mate) Alastair Cook with a delivery that was probably a bit too close for the cut shot the batsman attempted and Jonathan Trott, who was drawn into feeling for one angled across him that he could have left.
By contrast Mahmood, once seen as an England fast bowler of great potential, barely passed 80 mph and conceded five an over in a performance littered with full-tosses. He did, however, compensate with the wicket of Root - just his second first-class victim of the season - and later saw Bairstow leave one that tailed in a fraction to hit the top of off stump.
But if England were to take any positives from the day, it will have been a reminder of the strength of their lower-order batting. While Bresnan resisted stoutly, Swann counterattacked in characteristic style. He hit Craddock for four boundaries in five balls and later Mills for three in succession as the pair steered their side from any danger and both completed half-centuries shortly before the close.
Essex rested their captain James Foster, swing bowler Reece Topley and allrounder Graham Napier from their full-strength side, while England left out James Anderson and Stuart Broad from their likely first Test line-up. While Broad has a minor shoulder injury, the result of diving to regain his ground in the dying moments of the Champions Trophy final, an England spokesman confirmed that he would have been fit to play had this been a Test. It was also confirmed that England have no plans to send any of their squad bowlers along with Compton to further enhance the Worcestershire side in their game against the Australians later this week.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo