• Essex v England, LV= Challenge Match, Chelmsford, 4th day

England stroll but Broad a doubt

The Report by George Dobell in Chelmsford
July 3, 2013 « Live County Championship coverage | Chartbeat test »
England 413 for 9 dec and 279 for 4 dec beat Essex 278 and 186 by 228 runs
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Graeme Swann gave his captain Alastair Cook plenty to smile about in England's comfortable victory © Getty Images
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Graeme Swann proved his fitness for the Ashes with a five-wicket haul to help England to victory over Essex in Chelmsford, but concerns linger over the availability of Stuart Broad.

Swann, who missed all but one of England's games in the Champions Trophy through back and calf injuries, bowled only nine deliveries in the first innings here after sustaining a blow to his right forearm while batting against Tymal Mills, which Andy Flower admitted caused "great concern". But, defying a painfully slow pitch and a draining lack of intensity in a downgraded match, Swann worked his way through the Essex batting line-up until it capitulated and looked in decent rhythm going into the Test series.

Essex lost their last six wickets for 32 runs in nine overs with Graham Onions, as nagging as ever, claiming 4 for 43 including a spell of three wickets without conceding a run in 11 balls. It meant England won by 228 runs.

A doubt remains over the fitness of Broad, however. Broad injured his right shoulder diving to regain his ground while batting in the Champions Trophy final and has had a cortisone injection to reduce the inflammation. Flower expressed himself "pleasantly surprised" by Broad's first attempt at bowling since the injury, during the tea interval on the final day here, and said "we anticipate him being fit. He could not have played this game, but he should be OK."

"We thought Swann might have cracked his ulna," Flower said. "For a couple of hours we thought he might have been missing [from the first Test], which would have been a serious blow. When he came in after batting I was surprised by how swollen it was.

"I was also surprised by how well he played the fast bowler after getting hit that badly. He fought out there and didn't come off and get it seen to. It's a good example of his resilience. Because he's a jokey sort of guy we forget he is a tough competitor as well."

This was an admirably professional performance from England. Despite a pitch that was too slow for purpose and the lack of atmosphere over the last couple of days, they retained their discipline with bat and ball and made the best of the imperfect situation with which they were confronted. With the Champions Trophy finishing only days earlier, there has been no opportunity for the sort of warm-up period from which they benefited in Australia in 2010-11 - they placed great store in performing well in their three first-class warm-up games - but they have at least come together as a squad and played some red-ball cricket.

A couple of areas of concern remain. Several chances were squandered in the field - Swann missed Ravi Bopara in the slips off Steven Finn on the final day, while Kevin Pietersen missed two chances in the first innings - and Jonny Bairstow, who has hardly batted since the Leeds Test against New Zealand and was bowled in both innings here - still looks in need of time at the crease. Pietersen, too, has hardly batted but Flower expressed confidence in his form and no concern about any need for further time at the crease before the Tests.

"There were a few chances that went down," Flower admitted. "And taking chances will be very important in this series. But we're working hard and we're hoping that hard work will pay off.

"We felt Bairstow needed more time in the middle because he has gone three or four weeks without cricket during the Champions Trophy. He's had what he's had; there's nothing more we can do."

Performances in this game - or the game in progress at New Road - are most unlikely to affect selection for the first Test. Flower suggested the identity of the XI that will play at Trent Bridge has been known for some time and this game was more about gaining rhythm and testing potential replacements. In that case Boyd Rankin, who bowled with hostility in spite of the surface, will have done himself no harm, though Nick Compton's place in the selectors' thoughts seems to rely upon injury befalling one of the top three. Joe Root will open for the foreseeable future, however; Flower is not the fickle type.

"I've been very impressed with Rankin," Flower said, "and thought he bowled especially well. He is very impressive physically and he has the pace and bounce which can trouble international batsmen. He's quite an exciting prospect.

"It's nice to see and a good reaction from Compton. It's a really good reaction that he has scored runs consistently and it shows he's a good tough fighter. Of course, he's still in the picture. But he is an opening batsman and if there were an injury to someone batting at six it doesn't necessarily mean that he would be the next cab off the rank. But his best reaction was to score heavy runs and that's what he's doing. That's great."

There were some impressive performances from the Essex players in this game, too. Jaik Mickleburgh, who demonstrated a compact technique and astute shot selection in both innings, belied his lowly average and looked a fine prospect, while Mills' pace and improving control made a large impression on the England management. "His rate of progress is really exciting for Essex," Flower said. " His control has improved and he's really impressive physically. If he continues he might play for England."

Perhaps Onions might feel a little aggrieved. He scarcely bowled a poor ball in this match but, despite finishing with seven wickets and remaining the most consistent bowler in county cricket over the last couple of seasons, it seems he will remain on the periphery of the side.

While the likes of Finn, who bowled better than his figures suggests, and now Rankin and Chris Tremlett are preferred for their height, pace and bounce, Onions may be reliant on injury or rotation to Broad or James Anderson to win a further opportunity. In the current England set-up, his qualities - accuracy and consistency - are considered worthy, but less valuable than those offered by his rivals.

In some ways this game did not present an overly flattering demonstration of Essex cricket. The pitch was poor and the sight of a 15-year-old substitute fielder - talented though Aaron Beard looks - lent a faint air of ramshackle amateurishness to proceedings. By the time the game ended, they had drafted in three players to replace injured members of their starting XI - Greg Smith replaced the injured Tom Westley on Wednesday - though David Masters made a bizarre reappearance as a batsman on day four despite a hopeless match situation and a pronounced limp that could have been exacerbated by running between the wickets.

To their immense credit though, Essex is a club that continues to produce talented young players and, in Mills, Mickleburgh, Reece Topley, Ben Foakes et al, they have several cricketers who could follow the path of Alastair Cook into the England team. And that, after all, is their primary role.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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