- The Ashes
Recovering Prior on track for first Test
Matt Prior has provided a boost for the England team by coming through a long training session unscathed a few days ahead of the first Ashes Test.
Prior has been an injury doubt for the game, starting at the Gabba on Thursday, after sustaining a tear to the left calf muscle during the tour match against Australia A in Hobart. But by batting for about an hour against a variety of bowlers in the nets and then taking some catching practice, Prior provided a strong hint that he will be available for selection.
Prior was one of only four members of the England squad - Jonny Bairstow, Graeme Swann and Alastair Cook were the others - to attend a voluntary net session at the Gabba on Monday. Despite strapping to his left calf, injured while batting and later diagnosed as a grade one tear, he played with confidence in the nets and, perhaps keen to make a point to the watching Andy Flower, darted the first few yards of imaginary quick singles on several occasions without any sign of discomfort. Prior ended the session by giving photographers a thumbs up and saying "I'm fine" before having some catching practice on the outfield.
While it was a hugely encouraging session for Prior, it may still prove a little premature to conclude that he will definitely play in Brisbane. It has yet to be seen how he responds to the session and, with it having been only 10 days since he sustained the injury, the selectors may be uneasy to risk him at the start of such an important series for fear of aggravating the problem. Bairstow, batting fluently in an adjacent net, stands by.
Some might argue that Bairstow has a strong case for inclusion anyway. He averaged 29 with the bat in the Ashes in England compared to Prior's 19 and kept nicely in the second innings of England's victory in the warm-up game in Sydney.
But in such a pivotal game, England want their most experienced players. Prior, the team vice-captain and a veteran of 72 Tests including the series here in 2010-11, remains, despite his relative dip in form, a key figure with the bat and in the field. His astute use of the DRS might prove a factor, too. If England are satisfied that Prior is 100% fit, there will be no selection dilemma: he will play.
The wicketkeeping selection is one of two issues the selectors have yet to resolve ahead of the first Test. While Michael Carberry, leaving the ball with the precision required to prosper in Australia, has secured the opening berth and forced Joe Root back to the No. 6 position for a while, there is still doubt as to the identity of the third seamer.
While there are, on the face of it, three candidates - Steven Finn, Chris Tremlett and Boyd Rankin - it seems most unlikely that Finn will be included. While his wicket-taking record remains admirable, his propensity to leak runs is incompatible with England's strategy and renders him needing to improve his control if he is to break back into the side.
Tremlett, by contrast, may have lacked potency - he endured a modest county season and has taken just the one wicket in two games on this trip so far - but remains a reliable man to perform the holding required to balance England's attack. With his height, his skill and his control, he can be relied upon to maintain the pressure built up by James Anderson and Stuart Broad and should enjoy the extra bounce in the Australian wickets.
Those whose memories of Tremlett are limited to Test cricket will wonder what the fuss is about: he has invariably looked a fine quality performer at this level and, on the tour of 2010-11, was arguably England's most impressive bowler.
The intervening months have not all been kind, though. Tremlett has suffered a couple of serious injuries and, though he has worked hard to recover his strength and match fitness, there is little evidence to suggest he has recovered the nip that made him such a dangerous bowler.
Boyd Rankin may yet warrant selection as a compromise selection. While his form on the tour so far has been patchy, he has more pace than Tremlett and more control than Finn. He has never bowled in Australia prior to this trip and is taking a while to find the correct length, but Ed Cowan, the Australian left-hander, reckoned one of his spells in the latest tour game "screamed 'Test bowler" and he might prove a more aggressive choice. But, in a side who tend to play 'safety first' cricket, Tremlett remains the most likely selection.
Whatever happens, England's struggle to settle on a third seamer underlines the value of Tim Bresnan. While the unglamorous holding role performed so often by Bresnan rarely wins many headlines, the difficulty England have had finding a replacement for him has provided a reminder of his value. He is now bowling at full pace in the nets and, all being well, will make his return in the two-day game at Alice Springs that comes before the second Test in Adelaide. Tremlett or Rankin will have to bowl impressively in Brisbane if they are to deny him a quick return to the side.
While the rest of the squad took the time to enjoy the local attractions or a round of golf, Cook could have been forgiven for wishing he had joined them. He enjoyed a tough net session, being beaten several times by the net bowlers and losing his off stump to a beauty from Swann that lured him down the pitch and turned past his outside edge.
Generally, however, England are in good shape, and the promising performance of Prior will have provided further reassurance that, days before the serious business begins, they remain on track.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo