Gary Ballance struck his third century of the month on a rain-affected first day of the England Lions’ match against the touring Australians at Wantage Road.
Yorkshire batsman Balance’s knock of 104 from 154 balls included 16 fours and one six as the Lions closed on 269-7 with spinner Nathan Lyon the pick of the Australia bowlers with 3-80.
Worcestershire all-rounder Moeen Ali also contributed 61 off 101 deliveries, but with bad weather forecast for today the tourists’ hopes for batting practice in this match could well be frustrated.
Rain fell on and off throughout the morning, meaning there was no play before lunch with conditions only clearing up in time for play to start at 2pm.
England Lions won the toss and chose to bat but they lost Luke Wells for 10 in the sixth over when he edged James Faulkner to Australia wicketkeeper Matthew Wade.
His fellow opener Alex Lees, one of three Yorkshire players in the side alongside Liam Plunkett, should have followed on 16 but the tourists’ captain Shane Watson put down a straightforward chance at slip, off the bowling of Lyon.
Fortunately for Watson, his mistake only cost 17 runs as he pouched his next opportunity at first slip after Yorkshire’s Lees edged another Lyon delivery to walk for 33.
The Lions’ captain, Eoin Morgan, was to make only five before throwing his wicket away with an ugly slash off Lyon to Watson, again at first slip.
However, Ali was to complete a confident half-century off 85 balls as the hosts reached lunch on 156-3 with runs coming easily.
But Ali perished in the fourth over of the evening session when he was taken by Steve Smith at second slip off Mitchell Starc to break a fourth-wicket partnership of 70 with Ballance.
Ballance, whose previous tons this month came for Yorkshire against Warwickshire in the County Championship and the Unicorns in the YB 40, then went past 50 off 90 deliveries. Lyon was brought back into the attack in the 56th over and with his first ball forced Ben Stokes to edge to Watson at slip and fall on 19.
Lions’ wicketkeeper Jos Buttler (7) went cheaply by smashing Smith’s waist-high full toss straight to Lyon at deep midwicket.
Ballance then surged past 100 off 153 balls by hammering Smith for six over midwicket, only for the part-time spinner to trap him lbw with the very next ball.
Keith Barker and Plunkett then survived the final four overs and will resume this morning on nine and five respectively.
England were initially intending to name their squad today for the fifth Ashes Test at the Kia Oval – the match starts on Wednesday – but will now do so tomorrow.
It is not confirmed, but a reasonable assumption nonetheless, that the delay – an unusual one, given the squad will be required to assemble in London tomorrow evening – is a consequence of Tim Bresnan’s season-ending back injury, and perhaps Kevin Pietersen’s ongoing knee trouble.
The latter had another precautionary scan two days ago, and was pronounced available for selection, but it is likely England will name batting cover just in case – which logically should mean James Taylor, in the reckoning in Manchester the last time Pietersen was doubtful, should be so again. Bresnan’s absence is more of a headache, after he did so much with bat as well as ball at Chester-le-Street to help England to a 3-0 lead and therefore a historic third successive Ashes series victory.
England’s selectors are therefore in an unaccustomed position this weekend.
There will be no question – and never would have been, for this valedictory match and the chance to impose a 4-0 drubbing on Australia – of asking match-winners Anderson or Broad to take a blow.
For the first time in months if not years, though, England will not be able to name a battery of contenders lining up to take that third seamer’s spot.
The misfortune of Bresnan and Graham Onions (out with a broken finger) leaves only Chris Tremlett, and an apparently still off-colour Steven Finn, on a very short list.
Others, such as England Lions James Harris or Finn’s Middlesex team-mate Toby Roland-Jones, do not yet quite fit the template of having spent time around previous squads before being asked the big question.
Irishman Boyd Rankin, another uncapped at Test level, would also be left-field for current management – albeit at a venue which should suit.
Finn, dropped after misfiring in England’s thrilling first-Test victory at Trent Bridge, has not even made the squad for the last two matches – Tremlett, as well as Onions latterly, preferred and therefore apparently being primed for a return when the situation dictated.
It seems the very eventuality has arrived then for England to demonstrate boasts about their fast-bowling stocks, and strength in depth, will actually come to fruition when needed.
It is time for the contingency to pay off. For Tremlett specifically, though, there is a caveat.
Yes, his home surface is often a good fit for his particular attributes – pace, height and therefore bounce.
But with Anderson and Broad having got through more than 300 overs between them already in four Tests, that third seamer’s role is sure to be an onerous one.
England have long had their eyes on Tremlett as a ‘horses-for-courses’ certainty in Australia this winter, after he took 17 wickets in three matches in their 2010/11 Ashes series victory – including eight in Perth.
England squad (probable): AN Cook, JE Root, IJL Trott, KP Pietersen, IR Bell, JM Bairstow, MJ Prior (wkt), SCJ Broad, GP Swann, CT Tremlett, JM Anderson, ST Finn, JWA Taylor.