Fawad Ahmed given dose of reality
Australia A 331 for 4 (Maddinson 181) dec and 111 (Gidman 4-25) beat Gloucestershire 122 (Sayers 5-24) and 296 (Dent 56, Christian 46, Bird 3-53, Harris 3-56, Sayers 3-68) by 24 runs
Fawad Ahmed provided the single most thrilling moment of Australia A's tighter-than-it-should-have-been victory over Gloucestershire when he clasped a blinding catch at mid-on to account for a stubborn Gareth Roderick. Unfortunately for Ahmed, it was also the most telling contribution he made to the last match before Australia's selectors decided whether or not to add him to the Ashes squad that assembles in Taunton on Monday.
Match figures of 31.2-9-100-1 for Ahmed told a story almost as barren as the tourists' second innings fade for 111, against a Division Two team that their captain Michael Klinger conceded was still learning how to play "hard first-class cricket". There were mitigating factors against the success of legspin in the match, cold temperatures keeping hands cold and an icy wind testing Ahmed's command of length and pace.
Ashton Agar's left-arm spin fared rather better, though their relative tallies of overs suggested the 19-year-old was not being quite so closely observed by the selectors John Inverarity, Rod Marsh and Mickey Arthur. Ahmed's best was eye-catching, several leg breaks fizzing past groping bats and some googlies misread as comprehensively by Matthew Wade as they were by the Gloucestershire batsmen.
But a tally of two wickets from as many matches on the Australia A tour is the first significant reverse Ahmed has suffered since making his state debut for Victoria last summer and quickly factoring into the calculations of selectors, administrators, marketeers and ultimately Federal politicians, who passed legislation to expedite his application for citizenship last week.
Questions about Ahmed's readiness for an Ashes promotion were chief among those raised by the first long-form match played by an Australian team in England this year. Steve Smith, the stand-in captain while Brad Haddin rested, could thank his pace bowling triumvirate of Ryan Harris, Jackson Bird and the fast-rising Chadd Sayers for ensuring the tour would conclude with three victories out of three, but the tourists were placed under considerable pressure before getting there.
On the second evening Dan Christian had taken the initiative well away from the bowlers, inflicting particular punishment on Ahmed. He would only add another six runs to his overnight total before the persisting Harris coaxed an outside edge behind, but after Benny Howell was pinned lbw first ball, a series of partnerships down the order had Gloucestershire creeping alarmingly close to their target, Ahmed's catch notwithstanding.
The last pair of Liam Norwell and Tom Smith had scrounged 36 together by the time Sayers claimed a deserved eighth wicket for the match, granting Wade his fifth catch among 23 byes, the morning session extended by an extra half hour for the taking of the final wicket proving a nervous 30 minutes for a team that had seemed in such command on the first day, declaring after a mere 58 overs then rounding up five early wickets.
From there they had to fight the match out. Gloucestershire's ability to fight toe-to-toe with a conglomerate of Australia's best young players plus a sprinkling of Ashes tourists provided some disquieting evidence to back up the observation of the former England captain Andrew Strauss about what his side had witnessed down under in 2010-11.
"We were surprised at the quality of some of the state sides," Strauss told the Sunday Times. "Australia used to have a conveyor belt of talent but it was noticeable they were a long way behind where they had been four years previously."
On the evidence of this match there is still a lot of catching up to do, for Ahmed and Australia.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here