England A v Sri Lankans, Worcester, 2nd day May 5, 2006

Sri Lanka's batting worries continue to mount

Sri Lankans 179 and 68 for 5 trail England A 259 (Key 63, Joyce 49, Kulasekara 4-83) by 12 runs

Chamara Kapugedera appeals - in vain - for the wicket of Liam Plunkett © Getty Images
Today England A's game at Worcester, in effect the first Test-match trial since 1974, had an old-fashioned whiff. The Women's Institute served up tea and cake. England's middle order served up a collapse. And the stands bubbled with unaccustomed debate about the team for the next Test. Question: Jon Lewis or Liam Plunkett? Answer: It's irrelevant. If Sri Lanka's batsmen don't find some gumption John Lever and Liam Botham would do the job. By the close they were 68 for 5 in their second innings, still 12 behind.

Last September, the names of the Ashes-winning XII were not so much inked into future team sheets as engraved. But they have not played together since; there is a good chance they will never do so again. Simon Jones is out for at least six weeks with a dodgy knee. Ashley Giles has recently admitted that his creaking hip could end his career. Michael Vaughan has a chronic knee problem. (He recently compared the frequent tidying up of his cartilage - the shock absorber in the knee - to trips to the barber's. But unlike hair, cartilage doesn't grow back.) Harmison's shins are still too sore for cricket.

Barring miracles none will play at Lord's next week. Paul Collingwood looks likely to slot in at No. 5, leaving space for one new batsman, a spinner and two quicker bowlers. But the biggest winners today were two blokes who weren't even playing: Ian Bell and Geraint Jones.

Bell was being squeezed for his No. 3 spot. But none of the pretenders shone here. Rob Key, dropped in 2004-05 after averaging 44 in his last seven Tests, looked the pick: the tree-lined ground echoed to the boom of his bat before he snicked a drive on 63. By contrast that of Essex's Ravinder Bopara, whose cricket-loving parents were Indian emigrees to east London, tapped as he ran hard in his 41. It was neat, but it was Mogadon cricket. Middlesex's Ed Joyce was prettier but less assured than either and fell for 49. He didn't always seem in control of his drives. Bell's most realistic challenger, Alastair Cook, disappeared yesterday for an inelegant duck.

Ed Joyce on the attack © Getty Images
After lunch, with Key and Joyce gone, the middle order collapsed, losing four wickets with the score between 225 and 226. Both Loudon and Bopara fell trying to speed up, then the wicketkeeper Chris Read got a stinking lbw decision before Rikki Clarke inside-edged to the keeper.

Poor Read. Having spent more than two years out in the cold, the feeling was that his rapping on the Test selectors' door may just have been getting loud enough - three hundreds in five first-class innings to go with molten glovework. But yesterday at Old Trafford Geraint Jones palmed a simple chance from the rampant Stuart Law straight to slip, a miss that might easily have gone to grass and caused great pain. By contrast Read was given out lbw to a ball that looked much too high by the ex-Premiership referee Martin Bodenham. Read walked off with no runs, three meaningful stares at the umpire and one at the sky. (At least Bodenham was spared a chorus of "You don't know what you're doing".)

All would have wanted far more runs on a pitch with only a lick of sap and against an underpowered attack. Nuwan Kulasekara, a whippy, whippety seamer took 4 for 83. Lasith `Slinger' Malinga was good to watch - all flowing mane, low catapulting arm and a potent mix of bouncers and yorkers - but wicketless. Besides Murali (and it's a big besides) England have little to fear next week.

With Sajid Mahmood likely to play at Lord's as the strike bowler, Plunkett and Lewis were battling for a place. Lewis took two wickets, taking him to eight in the game, Plunkett none. The captain looks certain to be Andrew Flintoff. He was here today, supposedly to practice against the Merlyn bowling machine, but probably also to talk teams with the selectors. And the spinner - provided there is one? Selector Geoff Miller was giving nothing away - except that if he was 20 years younger he'd be in with a decent chance himself. "No. 8 batter who didn't turn it very much. I'd have been perfect."

Paul Coupar is assistant editor of The Wisden Cricketer