England optimistic on Pietersen

Kevin Pietersen bats in the nets Getty Images

England remain hopeful that Kevin Pietersen will be fit to play in the third Investec Ashes Test after he came through a series of fitness tests unscathed at Old Trafford.

Pietersen, who sustained a calf strain during the Lord's Test, batted in the nets, took part in catching practice in the indoor school and then underwent a series of sprints on the damp outfield without any obvious discomfort. While England will not make a final decision on his inclusion until the morning of the game, all the signs are positive.

"He has gone through training the last two days and done everything we've asked of him," Alastair Cook said of Pietersen. "Clearly we have to make that decision in the morning in case he pulls up differently, but we're pretty hopeful.

"We don't know quite how he will pull up from today's training, but he's worked incredibly hard with the medical team over this last week to get himself right, so fingers crossed he has."

Pietersen's inclusion would mean no immediate recall for James Taylor and a strong probability that England would play the same XI than dominated Australia at Lord's. The development of Joe Root's offspin and an impressive return from Tim Bresnan, who enjoyed his best Test in more than a year, have reduced the need for any changes and provided reassurance over the current balance of the side.

It may well be wrong to read too much into the recalls of Monty Panesar and Chris Tremlett into the squad for this game. Or, indeed, into the omission of Steven Finn and Graham Onions. If Middlesex did not have a County Championship game scheduled for this week, there is a strong chance Finn would have been retained in the squad but the selectors concluded, reasonably enough, that he would benefit more from a game than time in the nets.

Finn has not been abandoned; he has been given the best opportunity to recover the rhythm and confidence that may yet see him develop into a great fast bowler. He'll be back.

Similarly, Tremlett was not scheduled to play (Surrey do not have another Championship game until August 22) this week so there was nothing to be lost by the England management taking a close look at him in training. Blessed with unusual height and a remarkable physique, Tremlett is a bowler who, at his best, presents problems for batsmen that few can match. He was magnificent in the Ashes series in 2010-11, not just with his pace and bounce, but his ability to move the ball in the air and off the seam. At his best, there may be no bowler more unappealing to face in world cricket.

That 'at his best' caveat is crucial, however. Despite Tremlett's admirable attitude towards fitness and rehabilitation, there remains limited evidence that he has recovered his peak form after a series of injury setbacks. While the England management have proclaimed their delight in the fact that Tremlett has delivered in excess of 230 overs in the County Championship, it has partly been a lack of penetration that has forced him into spell after spell. A bowling average of 39.63 does not scream Test form.

Anecdotal evidence and some excellent impressions in the nets suggest that Tremlett is, at last, reaching something approaching his peak, but the England management will have been able to use the last few days to reach their own conclusions. His place in this squad does not mean he is ahead of Finn, or indeed Boyd Rankin, in the fight for a place in the squad to tour Australia later in the year.

While there are some reservations about Rankin's somewhat diffident personality, he is continuing to make quite an impression with his pace, fitness and skills. The prospect of Rankin, Finn and Tremlett, as daunting a trio of fast bowlers as England have possessed for some time, all touring Australia is not as remote as it may seem.

Panesar's recall is more intriguing. Hampered by a shoulder injury and some unsympathetic pitches, he has endured a disappointing season for Sussex, claiming just 21 wickets in 10 Championship games at an average of 40.09. Indeed, so unimpressed were Sussex by his form and, in particular, by his fielding, that he was dropped at the start of June.

That marked a significant setback for the left-arm spinner. Having played a key role in England's Test series victory in India, where he took 17 wickets in three Tests at an average of 26.82, he endured a much less impressive tour of New Zealand, where he claimed five wickets in three Tests at an average of 70 apiece.

With the strain of a heavy workload beginning to show, he returned to Sussex and failed to endear himself with some lacklustre displays in the field. Motionless as the ball was delivered, he developed the habit of stopping the ball with his foot and returning throws to the keeper underarm. A couple of senior players were underwhelmed and, in the end, Sussex arranged for him to have a cortisone injection in his left shoulder and a brief break from the game in the hope that it would revive him.

It seems to have done the trick. Panesar has claimed two five-wicket hauls in the four Championship games he has played since his recall and taken his wickets at a cost of 29.58. He remains England's second-choice spinner.

Still, the fact that England recalled him rather than looking to Simon Kerrigan who, at 24, may well represent the future of English spin bowling, does underline how loyalty and continuity of selection have become engrained in this side. Both are admirable qualities, but there are times it seems much harder to be dropped than it does to be selected. Kerrigan, who claimed 12 wickets in his last first-class game on his home Old Trafford surface (Lancashire's other spinner did not take any) and also another seven-wicket innings haul in the previous game, might wonder what more he has to do.

The pitch for this game is expected to offer more pace than any surface encountered so far. Hard and bearing more grass than expected, it may offer more encouragement to the seamers, while it is also expected to turn as the match progresses. Heavy rain on the eve of the game and a fairly well-grassed square will do little to aid reverse swing but, whatever the surface, England's bowler should have the weapons to damage an Australian batting line-up as weak as any that has toured England in many, many years.