Robert Key has been given a golden opportunity to enhance his case for an England recall, after being named as captain of a strong England Lions squad to face New Zealand in their final four-day warm-up at the Rose Bowl on May 8.
Key dominated the Kiwi attack at Canterbury on Monday, milking them for an unbeaten 178 out of a first-day total of 324 for 1, which follows on from the twin centuries he scored against them on their last tour of England in 2004. He was also named as England A captain in the 2006 home season, when he scored a hundred against Pakistan.
"Robert Key enjoyed an excellent season for Kent last year, was recently named in the England Performance Squad and he will bring his experience of leading his county to the captain's role," said England's selector, Geoff Miller.
Key's goal is a place in the first Test at Lord's on May 15, but first he must overcome the claims of Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara, both of whom toured with the Test team this winter, and who have also enjoyed flying starts to their summer. They have been named alongside him in a strong 12-man squad, which also includes two up-and-coming batsmen in Hampshire's Michael Carberry and Sussex's Luke Wright.
The bowling front is no less competitive. There is no place for Steve Harmison, but Matthew Hoggard has forced his way back into the reckoning with his eight-wicket haul for Yorkshire against Hampshire this week. Also included is the Hampshire seamer Chris Tremlett, who came close to an England recall in New Zealand this winter, but pulled up injured after a five-over spell in the Test warm-up fixture in Dunedin.
"Matthew Hoggard was left out of the last two Test matches in New Zealand but he is a fighter and he will not want to give up his England place easily," said Miller. "He has started the season with a strong performance for Yorkshire and this will be another chance for him to show what he is capable of against an international side."
The wicketkeeper for this fixture is another recent England reject, Matt Prior, who was ruthlessly axed following the tour to Sri Lanka in December. He impressed with the bat on that trip, and came close to saving the first Test at Kandy in a bold rearguard, but his glovework proved too fallible for the selectors' comfort. Nevertheless, he has started the season strongly for Sussex, and has a prime opportunity to restate his credentials.
"In choosing this squad we were keen to show consistency by giving further opportunities to players who were involved with either the Test or one-day squad during the winter or the England Lions," said Miller. "There is intense competition for places in the senior squad at present and all of these players will be keen to make an impression on the selectors ahead of the international season."
One notable absentee is Andrew Flintoff, who has been bowling with pace, accuracy and intent since the start of the season, and also found a hint of form with the bat in the Friends Provident victory over Scotland at the weekend. But he is not being risked just yet, as he continues his rehabilitation from a fourth bout of ankle surgery.
England Lions squad
Robert Key (Kent, capt), Ravinder Bopara (Essex), Michael Carberry (Hampshire), Matthew Hoggard (Yorkshire), Steven Kirby (Gloucestershire), Matt Prior (Sussex, wk), Graham Onions (Durham), Adil Rashid (Yorkshire), Owais Shah (Middlesex), Graeme Swann (Nottinghamshire), Chris Tremlett (Hampshire), Luke Wright (Sussex)