England were keeping a close eye on proceedings as Australia’s latest tour match against Sussex got underway – and not only to check on their Ashes rivals.
With the squad for next week’s third Test against Australia at Old Trafford due to be named tomorrow, England were not just monitoring their opponents’ attempts to rediscover form, but considering selection options.
Chief among their concerns is the fitness of batsman Kevin Pietersen, who suffered a calf injury in the second Test victory at Lord’s.
Pietersen is battling to recover for Thursday’s match but England gave a clue as to the identity of a possible replacement this week by requesting that Nottinghamshire’s James Taylor play for Sussex at Hove.
Taylor played two Tests for England against South Africa last summer but was overlooked for the winter tours to India and New Zealand.
He boasts good form this summer having scored 824 runs in 15 County Championship innings, with an unbeaten double century against his temporary side, Sussex, in June.
Yet Taylor was not getting too carried away with thoughts of a Test recall just yet.
“I’m hopeful that KP will be fit to play and, as it stands, I’m preparing to play in the three-day game for Sussex and nothing more,” the 23-year-old told reporters earlier this week.
“I’m not back in the Test side yet but I’m pleased to be a step closer to it and I’ve always dealt with situations like this by concentrating on the game in hand and refusing to look too far ahead.”
Other options for England could include Ravi Bopara, who shone in the recent Champions Trophy, but he has been troubled by a side strain for the past fortnight.
Yorkshire’s Gary Ballance also has his admirers having scored 690 runs at an average of 57.5 in the Championship this season.
Another reason for focusing on events at Hove concerns the bowling options. Old Trafford may not have staged a Test match since 2010 due to extensive ground redevelopment but its reputation for spin endures.
England – like Australia – are pondering adding a second spinner to their squad and Monty Panesar was in action against the tourists.
Panesar has long been regarded as England’s second-choice specialist slow bowler behind Graeme Swann, although he has not played a home Test since Australia’s last visit in 2009.
The 31-year-old’s last nine appearances have all come away from home, including all three Tests in New Zealand earlier this year.
Adding Panesar could mean leaving a seamer out of their squad.
Steven Finn and Graham Onions could be the most vulnerable having not made the final XI to play the second Test.
England can secure the Ashes with victory in Manchester having taken a 2-0 lead in the five-match series with victories at Trent Bridge and Lord’s.
Steve Smith looks to have secured his place in Australia’s team for Thursday with an unbeaten 98 on the first day at Hove.
The 24-year-old from Sydney was one of several batsmen under pressure after making just three runs in Australia’s heavy defeat at Lord’s, but his was the standout performance on an encouraging day for the Australians looking to force their way into contention for Old Trafford.
Ed Cowan (66) and Phil Hughes (84) figured in an opening stand of 150 in 35 overs but reserve wicketkeeper Matthew Wade was out for a duck as Australia ended the first day on 354-5 after winning the toss.
Smith and all-rounder James Faulkner revived the tourists with a stand of 131 in 28 overs for the fifth wicket after Australia had failed to build on the platform provided by Cowan and Hughes when they lost four wickets for 68 runs in 27 overs.
They were particularly effective when Sussex took the new ball, with 47 runs plundered in five overs including three successive boundaries by Smith off Chris Liddle.
Faulkner became Panesar’s third victim in the penultimate over when he was bowled hitting across the line and although Smith hit the first ball of the last over for his 15th boundary, he still needs two runs to complete what would be only the third hundred on the tour so far by an Australian.
Earlier, Cowan and Hughes batted throughout the morning session, although Hughes was badly dropped on 22 by Sussex captain Chris Nash at second slip off Chris Jordan.
The left-hander chanced his arm on several occasions against the new ball in a somewhat skittish innings, although he did play some pleasing back-foot shots when offered any width by the Sussex seamers.
Cowan looked more assured until he tried to work a ball from Lewis Hatchett off his hips and was well caught by ‘guest’ player Taylor. Cowan’s 66 came off 112 balls with 10 fours.
Hatchett, in only his second first-class game of the season, looked Sussex’s most threatening seamer and he struck again in the 42nd over when Hughes was caught behind, drawn into playing at a ball that held its line outside off stump.
Hughes, whose innings included 14 fours, looks to have cemented his place at Old Trafford despite scoring only two runs in his last three Test innings and the same applies to Usman Khawaja, who looked reasonably secure until he pushed hard at Panesar and edged to Jordan at slip.
Wade, playing his first game for a month, had talked optimistically before the game about forcing his way into the Test team as a specialist batsman but he lasted just six balls before being held at backward point in the first over after tea aiming a forcing shot off the back foot at Panesar.