Up for grabs
Dave Fulton says the season-opener between Durham and the MCC has big England implications.
Last Updated: 18/08/09 4:28pm
Few season-openers have been as mouth-watering as the one that awaits us this week as County Champions Durham take on a strong MCC side at Lord's.
It's Ashes year for starters and with Andrew Strauss, who remains the boss in the longer forms despite his omission from the 30-man Twenty20 squad, saying he knows 9 of his best Test 11 it would appear there's a batting spot and a fast bowling place up for grabs; the likely candidates from outside the current England squad to fill these two spots are all on show at Lord's.
Ironically, the man in possession of the vulnerable number three position, Owais Shah, will be jetting off to South Africa to play for the Delhi Daredevils in the IPL at a time when he needs to be doing everything in his power to reinforce his credentials over the longer form of the game.
His absence from the early weeks of the County Championship opens wider a door that has refused to shut since Michael Vaughan's form began to decline ahead of his resignation as England captain.
Vaughan is included in the MCC line-up and will start favourite for a re-call to England colours in May if he can begin the season showing solid evidence that he is back to his best.
Along with Pietersen, Vaughan is the man Australia fear after his batting heroics of 2002-03 when he pumped out three centuries, not to mention the small matter of his positive influence as captain in England's 2005 triumph. Andrew Flintoff and Pietersen might have grabbed most of the headlines - as they've continued to do - but make no mistake: it was Vaughan in alliance with Duncan Fletcher that pulled the strings.
Vaughan reeled off a classy century for Yorkshire on their recent trip to Dubai but England will want to see consistency from the former captain; Flintoff's team was punished in the last Ashes series for too many nostalgic selections.
Also in contention are Ian Bell, Shah's predecessor at three and Robert Key, the Kent captain, who will lead the MCC team out at Lord's. The pair have jostled for selection before, most notably for the South Africa tour of 2004-05. Key rightly made that trip after a double-hundred at Lord's against the West Indies and a more vital innings at Old Trafford, where he steered England to victory with 93 not out to clinch the series.
Key was contentiously not selected for the first Test of the South Africa series, a returning Mark Butcher preferred, and his international career has not been back on track since. Now, though, Key is older and wiser, prepares better than he once did and crucially knows his game. His rise to prominence in Twenty20 cricket to the extent that he is one of the favourites for the England captaincy for the World Twenty20 will do his cause no harm.
If Key's star is in the ascendancy, the same cannot be said of Bell, who seemed to have established himself as a top international batsman in 2006 when he pumped out three consecutive centuries against Pakistan, but who looked a shadow of his former self in India this winter. In need of a mental break he spent most of the West Indies tour charging around as a substitute fielder.
At his best Bell is easier on the eye than Key and Shah but he will need to hammer some big scores for Warwickshire if he is to wrest his place back.
The MCC pace attack is a blend of old and new. Chris Woakes (Warwickshire) and Steve Finn (Middlesex) are bowlers of great potential, who will be observed keenly but perhaps more interesting in an immediate England context is how Kabir Ali and Saj Mahmood will measure up against the bristling Durham attack.
Ali has long bemoaned his bad luck at the hands of the England selectors with some justification, while Mahmood has the pace and athleticism to be a fine asset at international level if he can harness control and consistency as well as a touch more nous.
Stuart Broad, Jimmy Anderson and Flintoff are an impressive pace triumvirate in England conditions but they are on the lookout for a fourth musketeer in time for the first Test of the summer against the West Indies on May 6th.
With question marks over Steve Harmison and Ryan Sidebottom and Amjad Khan sidelined with a knee injury, Mahmood, Ali and Durham trio Liam Plunkett, Graham Onions and the underrated Mark Davies are all in contention.
It promises to be a great start to the season.