England v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Edgbaston, 1st day May 25, 2006

Plunkett and Mahmood fight it out

Liam Plunkett may have just pushed himself to the top of England's reserve list © Getty Images
It's good to have options. It can also be bad for your scalp. A whole lot of head scratching will take place between the end of this Test and the start of third and final one, beginning next week at Trent Bridge, with Liam Plunkett and Sajid Mahmood the cause. Both put in clinical performances on a good day for England; both had to. If, as expected, Steve Harmison recovers sufficiently from injury for the third Test, this match acts as a shoot-out for the two bowlers.

Plunkett, 21, and Mahmood, 24, both impressed on a day when England played sensibly and dominated completely, but still seemed to lack the killer intensity we'd grown accustomed to. Plunkett finished with the better figures - 3 for 43 off 12 compared to Mahmood's 2 for 25 - and he deserved his success.

Plunkett will now be wiser to the fluctuating fortunes of Test cricket after Lord's and this innings. Plunkett spent most of the first Test in a state of near-despair - his line was good, his length was fine but he left his luck in Durham. Today, he took two wickets in his first over - opener Michael Vandort (think Peter Crouch's height and Simon Jones' bulk) and danger-man Mahela Jayawardene.

"Taking two wickets in my first over was a pleasure having waited for so long at Lord's to get going," said Plunkett. "I felt confident going in today and it all came out right. It was nipping around and swinging, so it was good to lose the toss and get the chance to bowl and pick up a few wickets. Throughout my short career, the plan has been just to kiss the pitch and try to get them to nick it through to the keeper. I think everyone bowled pretty well and we're more than pleased with the day."

A full length was key to Plunkett's success, and Mahmood took note. At times it was as if Sri Lanka's batsmen were trying their best to play England's fielders back into form, with shots that just weren't there that would have made coach Tom Moody wince, and possibly kick stuff. Mahmood capitalised. Getting the most out of a slow pitch, he again showed the priceless ability to get batsmen scurrying to the shelter of the non-striker's end.

There is, however, only one slot for the next Test. Do the selectors go for Plunkett's 80mph-an-hour accuracy, or Mahmood's occasionally erratic pace and bounce? Both have secret weapons - Mahmood's ability to reverse swing it and Plunkett's potential as a genuine No. 8 batsman. It's this batting ability that may see Plunkett retain his place, at least in the short-term. With coach Duncan Fletcher desperate to have a decent batsman to come in after Geraint Jones, Mahmood may struggle while Ashley Giles is still injured.

Sajid Mahmood grabbed two more wickets and has all the qualities to be a long-term option for England © Getty Images
"Hopefully I can have a few more days like this," says Plunkett. "I felt I did well today but I need to keep on taking wickets to keep in contention for the next Test. If I do that, then the selectors will have a tough job."

The future may belong to Mahmood, however. His height and bounce, his reverse-swing and his apparent fearlessness makes him perfect for England's top mission - Retaining The Ashes. He also induces excitement from the crowd - something that seems to have been missing from this England side over the last two Tests.

Nothing can live up to the Ashes Test at this venue last summer, so it's unfair to compare. But, despite a commanding performance, there seemed to be a real lack of intensity. Two reasons for this are Harmison's absence and Flintoff not quite recapturing his stirring form of last summer (his pace has dropped slightly as well).

The biggest reason, however, seems to be Monty 'Python' Panesar. He is the Jim Carey of the England set-up, the fall-guy who offers comedic respite from the serious drama. His drop off Plunkett was bad enough, but his failure to pick up a ball that was going so slow across the grass that worms could have given it a real run for its money was head-smackingly bad.

Watching the ball travelling towards Monty is like watching a loved-one making a drunken fool of themself in front of all of your friends. What the Aussie crowd will do to him is enough to make you shudder. What he'll do when an Ashes-deciding catch is skied towards him is enough to make you lock yourself in your room until the Australians learn how to be good winners.

Daniel Brigham is staff writer on The Wisden Cricketer