MCC v Warwickshire, Lord's April 7, 2005

England hopefuls take centre stage



Ian Bell: aiming to start his season with a bang at Lord's © Getty Images
The forecast is for snow, so it can only mean one thing...the cricket season is about to start. Tomorrow, at Lord's, the most eagerly anticipated English season since, well, last summer probably, will explode (or more like splutter, cough and shiver) into life as the MCC take on Warwickshire, the county champions, with players aiming to shake off the winter cobwebs and give the England selectors an early headache.

This fixture was resurrected last summer, in an attempt to give the English summer a clear and notable start, rather than the round of University games, which start on Saturday. But there is the annual problem of the climax of the football season, and the fact that most cricket supporters won't thaw out until about the middle of May. However, the fixture itself is actually quite an enticing prospect: Warwickshire, including Ian Bell - who will want to nudge, or more likely flatten, the selectors with an early season run-glut - take on a select XI largely consisting of England A players who have recently returned from a gruelling examination in Sri Lanka.

England may have a settled Test line-up, but there are a couple of places that may come under scrutiny during the summer. The most interesting of these is the wicketkeeper, after Geraint Jones's less-than-convincing display in South Africa. There is no doubt that Jones will be selected, and will prove more than adequate against Bangladesh, but unless he sharpens up his glovework, he could well cost England a Test match, and who would bet against it happening against Australia? While most of the keeper debate has centred on Chris Read or James Foster as Jones's main rivals, another candidate has rushed up on the blindside. Matt Prior had a superb tour of Sri Lanka and suddenly is the next contender. His performance at Lord's will be watched with particular interest, and a repeat of the century that Foster scored in last year's fixture will do him no harm.

This is no random selection of county has-beens. In a packed international season, the chances of injury are high, particular among the bowlers, and each of MCC's four seamers have a stake to claim. Sajid Mahmood had a disappointing 2004 and a chastening ODI debut at Bristol against New Zealand, and this is a chance to earn a second crack at international cricket, although the next paceman in line is Gloucestershire's Jon Lewis. After being called up ahead of the fifth Test in South Africa - and nearly winning a first Test cap - he is an ideal bowler to exploit the early-season conditions. Glamorgan's David Harrison is more of an outside bet for this summer, but is certainly one for the future with his good pace and bounce, while Paul Franks has done well to get back this far after nearly losing his action two seasons ago.

With one batting spot yet to be set in stone for the Test side, Bell will not be the only batsman trying to catch the eye, and the fact that his talent is already well-known makes two of MCC players more intriguing prospects. Alastair Cook, the Essex opener, was a last-minute pick for the Sri Lanka tour, after Kevin Pietersen was withdrawn, and impressed in tough conditions. He is a tall left-hander and his allround game has developed well under the watchful eye of Graham Gooch. Michael Powell, the Glamorgan version, is the other batsman who may feature in discussions. It will take a fair few injuries to get him into the England set-up, but then the Australians are about to land.

While the international hopefuls are all eyeing a chance to take on the Australians, the series doesn't start for another three months. There is a chance for county cricket to shine and this match will give a snapshot of the talent that exists. It may not have the glamour attached to England v Australia at Lord's, but the county game deserves to be appreciated. So get the snowploughs ready and let's play.

MCC (from) Alastair Cook, Andy Flower, Michael Powell, Owais Shah, John Stephenson (capt), Matt Prior (wkt), Mark Pettini, Graeme Swann, Paul Franks, Sajid Mahmood, David Harrison, Jon Lewis

Warwickshire Nick Knight (capt), Mark Wagh, Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott, Michael Powell, Alex Loudon, Dougie Brown, Tony Frost (wkt), Heath Streak, Nick Warren, Dewald Pretorius

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