Vaughan and Bell aim to impress
The English domestic season begins at Lord's on Thursday, and much is riding on the result. Not only will Durham, the county champions, be eager to commence their 2009 campaign on a positive note, but a trio of MCC batsmen will be desperate to stake an early claim for the contentious No. 3 Test spot ahead of this most anticipated of summers.
Michael Vaughan has been in good touch throughout the pre-season, and now begins the serious work of convincing the England selectors that he is worth a final chance at the top level. He will line up alongside Ian Bell, desperate to resurrect his international career after losing his place in the England side on the recent tour of the Caribbean, and Robert Key, who also is presenting national selectors with a strong case for consideration.
Key was forthright when outlining the importance the season-opener holds for those contending for the No. 3 spot. "It is generally about people's own agenda [in these games] and you are stupid if you think it's anything else," Key said. "Of course you want to win, but every player here will be thinking it's my opportunity to show what I can do. But that's a good thing to have. You'd like to think it won't be just this game that's the be-all and end-all."
England's incumbent No. 3, Owais Shah, isn't involved in the MCC-Durham match and will depart for South Africa in the next few days ahead of his IPL stint. Shah was far from convincing when finally given a run in the Test side in the Caribbean, compiling a modest 133 runs at 22.16 on a series of flat pitches and twice running himself out. Three weeks of Twenty20 cricket may not be the ideal preparation ahead of an Ashes summer; particularly when his challengers are getting their heads down in the first-class game.
The selectors have backed themselves into a corner in many respects after telling Shah that he would get a fair run in the team. However, they can't afford a weak link in the batting order when they face Australia, especially at first drop, so other options will prove tempting.
Vaughan's first priority is to score runs, beginning tomorrow, but he also holds the "experience card" and has performed well against Australia. That can't be said of Bell and Key - Bell averages 25 against them in 10 Tests and Key, who faced Australia during the 2002-03 Ashes series, hasn't played for England since 2005.
Bell has been released to play all cricket ahead of the international season to provide him with ample opportunity to stake a claim for a recall. He has a lot of ground to make up, but will be grateful for the chance to return to the middle after spending much of the West Indies tour carrying drinks and netting.
"There's a lot of candidates for it, I guess, but it's not for me to say," Bell told Cricinfo. "I've got to go to Warwickshire score as many runs as I can and enjoy my cricket. If I can give the selectors no alternative but to pick me because I've scored so many runs that's the way I'd like to go."
Key is coming off the Lions tour of New Zealand, where he performed well with the bat but failed to lead the team to a win. He is being touted as a likely option for the Twenty20 captaincy, but is also a candidate for the Test top order if England wish to take a new tack.
"It's funny, the reality is that people keep saying well done for being in the 30 but I say it doesn't make much difference if you are the 29th man," Key said. "You try not to think about it too much. Potentially I could be captain, I could open the batting or potentially not do anything and not make the squad.
"I felt I always had a lot more to give and if I could get back to playing as I can I could get back in there," he added. "When you see England struggling you think you have more of a chance. The more people struggle the better it is for those out of the team, that's the harsh reality of it."
While the batting permutations will command much of the focus from Thursday, the MCC bowling attack also includes players duelling for international honours. Sajid Mahmood is closing in on a recall while Adil Rashid was part of the Test and one-day squads in West Indies.
Tim Bresnan, the Yorkshire allrounder, has replaced Steven Finn after he injured his ankle in a Middlesex friendly and Chris Woakes is a highly-rated 20-year-old who was included in the 30-man Twenty20 squad on Monday. Worcestershire's Kabir Ali is one of the most consistent county performers and will be eager to show he, too, is deserving of the chance to add to his lone Test cap.
Durham will be led by their new captain Will Smith and have included Ian Blackwell in their squad following his winter move from Somerset. Paul Collingwood is preparing for his IPL stint and Steve Harmison has been rested by England.
MCC Stephen Moore, Robert Key (capt), Michael Vaughan, Ian Bell, Tom Westley, James Foster (wk), Adil Rashid, Tim Bresnan, Kabir Ali, Sajid Mahmood, Chris Woakes
Durham (from) Michael Di Venuto, Mark Stoneman, Will Smith (capt), Dale Benkenstein, Gordon Muchall, Ian Blackwell, Phil Mustard (wk), Liam Plunkett, Graham Onions, Mitchell Claydon, Callum Thorp, Gareth Breese, Ben Harmison
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo