England practice descends into farce
England 413 for 9 dec and 217 for 3 (Cook 82, Trott 79) lead Essex 278 by 330 runs
England's pre-Ashes warm-up match against Essex had descended into farce long before the decision was made to rescind its first-class status.
On a deathly slow wicket that bears little comparison to those expected in the Test series, England's batsmen were progressing with facile ease against a medium-pacer who is some way past his best and two part-time offspinners when it was decided that more benefit would be gained from the match if the Essex side was supplemented with higher-quality bowlers.
By the time that the England management started talking to the ECB about bringing in replacement players, Essex had lost David Masters (to an Achilles strain) and Tymal Mills (hamstring). When one of the part-time spinners, Tom Westley, was also forced off the pitch with a dislocated finger, it was decided to draft Boyd Rankin and Reece Topley into the Essex attack without further delay in order to provide more competitive bowling for the England batsman. The ECB, Essex and Warwickshire, Rankin's team, were all consulted and acquiesced.
On one hand that was a shame. Not only did it mean that all the admirable personal achievements from earlier in the game - such as Tim Bresnan's first first-class century since 2007, Tom Craddock's five-wicket haul and Joe Root's career-best figures - were obsolete, it also meant that any intensity this match had possessed was dissipated in a moment. It was not hard to understand the underwhelmed response from the full-house crowd.
But, bearing in mind that the entire point of this game was for England to gain competitive match practice ahead of the Ashes, it was a decision that had some merit. The sight of Westley and Owais Shah bowling from one end and Sajid Mahmood, now a shadow of the fast bowler he once promised to be, operating from the other had rendered this a pointless occasion and, for all the ensuing loss of meaning that followed the decision, England's batsmen did, at least, have to work harder against Rankin and Topley.
England had first looked at the possibility of bringing in replacement players on day two. Fearing for Graeme Swann's participation after he sustained heavy bruising after he was hit on the arm when batting, they began consulting with Essex and the ECB about the possibility of bringing in another player - probably James Tredwell. As it was, Swann recovered and England were keen not to dilute the intensity of the match by downgrading its status.
England had originally requested that Topley, along with Mills, play in this game. They requested that Ben Foakes keep wicket, too, with a view to monitoring his progress. But Topley was deemed in need of a rest after playing regularly of late and, once Mills and Masters limped out of the attack, there was little being gained by Jonathan Trott and Alastair Cook moving towards the most undemanding centuries of their careers and they made the decision that bringing in replacement players was the lesser of two evils.
As it was, Trott and Cook retired after withstanding a decent spell from Rankin, who generated decent pace from a surface that has slowed to a funereal pace and will have done his chance of a Test call no harm. He drew an edge from Trott, on 37, that flew through vacant second slip and hit the bat hard and high.
But if Trott and Cook enjoyed some batting practice, there was little opportunity for Ian Bell or Jonny Bairstow. Rain intervened 20 minutes after tea to limit their time in the middle while Kevin Pietersen, who it was decided needed less time in the middle than Bell or Bairstow, may well go into the first Test having had only one first-class innings, for Surrey, since his return from injury.
Earlier in the day Swann eased any injury concerns by returning to the field for the end of the Essex innings. Swann sustained a blow on the right forearm on the second day and subsequently went to hospital for a precautionary X-ray. While the scans showed no fracture, Swann was unable to take any further part and was clearly in some pain.
But any thoughts that he might be unable to bowl in the rest of the game were banished when he wrapped up the Essex innings with his ninth ball on the third day.
Things did not go exactly as he would have liked, though. Swann's first eight deliveries were plundered for 19 runs, with Mills - a No. 11 in the old-school, slogger mode - thrashing his first ball for four and then slogging successive sixes as part of an Essex tenth-wicket stand of 47 in nine overs with Craddock. Mills was finally bowled by a looping offbreak from Swann, but not before he had recorded what was, before the status of the game was changed, a career-best batting effort. Essex conceded a first-innings lead of 135.
Mills also inflicted a bit more physical pain on England. Having struck Swann on the arm and Tim Bresnan on the grill of the helmet, he also thumped a pull into Bell's knees at short leg off the bowling of Steven Finn. Bell did not sustain any serious injury.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo