Cutting departs from script
As he watched Ben Cutting charge in at England's batsmen on an otherwise turgid final afternoon of the Australia A match in Hobart, it is likely the selector on duty, Rod Marsh, would have been equal parts impressed and peeved.
Impressed because Cutting was taking the opportunity presented to him in a way few of his team-mates did across the match, striving to earn higher honours rather than going through the motions to avoid injury. But peeved because Cutting's rhythmic speed, lateral movement and sustained accuracy was providing England with the sort of quality batting work-out that Marsh, the national selector, John Inverarity, and the team performance manager, Pat Howard, have been deliberately trying to withhold from the tourists.
After completing a spell of 9-3-17-2 that included the significant wicket of Jonathan Trott, Cutting revealed his bowling was not only the result of earnest endeavour but also malice aforethought, including a phone call to his Queensland compatriot Ryan Harris to discuss Australia's Ashes plans for the touring batsmen. Trott faced up to a leg slip before edging a good one behind, and Joe Root floundered visibly against the ball well pitched up.
"Leading into this game when I thought I was going to be playing I spoke at length to Ryan Harris about bowling plans," Cutting said. "He did so well over in England I couldn't think of a better person to ring and talk to. That [leg slip] was one of his ideas and I decided to run with that and give it a go myself. I don't know if I was bowling that quick, I haven't seen the gun, but I only bowled one bouncer all day. I bowled a handful on day one, but in saying that I didn't bowl one to Alastair Cook, so I do pick my targets."
It was all very good and very thoughtful bowling, suggesting that the 26-year-old Cutting has matured into a paceman as intelligent as he is hostile. Looking on from the England viewing area, the team director, Andy Flower, could not help but approve of Cutting's expertise and the resultant stiffening required of the touring batsmen to counter him. For those nine overs, a lifeless game briefly mimicked something like the intensity of a Test match.
"I thought he bowled superbly," Flower said. "He bowled an excellent length, conditions were a little subcontinent-like, with the bounce of the ball. He bowled a perfect length for that pitch and he was good on the first day as well, I thought, without much luck. But he was excellent today. It was good for us to face that sort of quality bowling."
Good for England, but in all probability too good for the aims of the Australia selectors. In much the same manner as last summer when compiling the Australia A team to face the South Africans in Sydney, Inverarity's panel had hoped to prevent England from gaining much sight of top-class fast bowling before the first Test in Brisbane. The team for Hobart was lopsided, leaning heavily on batting and choosing only the seamer Trent Copeland to share the new ball with Cutting.
As a result of this, England's captain Alastair Cook and his likely Gabba opening partner Michael Carberry were able to dominate day one, playing themselves into the pinkest of form before the rain set in for two days. They were aided by a fielding display that bordered on the uninterested, leaving many to wonder whether the players involved were fully aware of the chance on offer to them, and if they would have been so slovenly were they playing for their state.
On day four, however, Cutting departed from the script so markedly that Flower learned more about several batsmen in just over an hour than he could have deduced from any of the team's previous 13 days on tour. It can only be hoped that Cutting has also forced the selectors to depart from their own planning for the Gabba by considering him for a place in the squad. Two years ago, Cutting's chances of a debut against New Zealand were checked by a back injury in the Sheffield Shield match preceding the 2011 Brisbane Test, an experience he still winces about.
"It's a funny one because it's such an amazing high and then the next day I was injured and a ridiculous low," Cutting said. "I missed a lot of cricket after that and dropped right down the pecking order, as I have done each time I've been injured, so the goal for me is just to stay on the park. I know if I can stay on the park and put the performances together that something will happen eventually."
In Hobart, Cutting put on a performance that should make his selection happen immediately. Whether Marsh chooses to look past the foiling of the selectors' subterfuge to appreciate the bowling on display will only be known when the Ashes squad is announced on Tuesday. One thing is certain: a handful of England batsmen will be hoping fervently that he does not.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here