There was something slightly wistful about Eoin Morgan's appearance in the nets at Uxbridge last Sunday. The enviable timing and blissful audacity were intact – one aerial straight drive went for miles – but it was hard to shake the feeling that it was too little, too late.
Morgan had arrived back in England the day before, having spent the previous six weeks playing Twenty20 in the Indian Premier League. His team, the Kolkata Knight Riders, have a splendid chance of qualifying for the IPL semi-finals, though Morgan's minor contributions in his 12 matches did little to enhance his reputation as one of the world's most formidable limited-overs batsmen.
He went reasonably hotfoot to Uxbridge, where Middlesex were playing the Sri Lankans, and today will play for England Lions against the same opposition at Derby. His presence and that of Ravi Bopara has been billed as a shoot-out for the last batting spot in England's team for the first Test next week, a place made available by the retirement of Paul Collingwood.
As shoot-outs go it is hardly from High Noon. Morgan will not play in the match in Cardiff and, given its compressed nature, has virtually no chance of appearing at all in the series of three matches against Sri Lanka. It was originally presumed that if Morgan scored runs for the Lions he might stake an irresistible claim to the place that he first won last summer and which he lost before last winter's Ashes.
But the selectors met yesterday to discuss their Cardiff squad, heavily implying that what happens in Derby is for the distant, not the immediate, future. It is therefore unthinkable that they can pick Morgan on the strength of one first-class match since last summer, a tour outing in Melbourne against Victoria last December, and 137 IPL runs.
Bopara, who has found some form at the start of this season with two Championship hundreds for Essex, will be recalled to the Test team for the first time since he was omitted for the Ashes decider at The Oval in 2009. It is possible, in the sense that it is possible the United Kingdom will again win the Eurovision Song Contest, that the selectors will overlook both and select a newcomer from the Lions line-up – James Hildreth, James Taylor, Jonathan Bairstow – or, praise be, outside it – Ben Stokes, the suddenly rampant Varun Chopra.
This panel generally tends to eschew the overtaking principle. Only once since Geoff Miller became chairman have the selectors disregarded it, when the Nottinghamshire fast bowler Darren Pattinson was picked at Headingley three years ago. Considering that was not an outrageous success and Pattinson has yet to play his second Test match, they may not be anxious for a reprise.
They will be aware that England's batting stocks are not as richly endowed as the bowling resources. Injury and circumstance as well as policy have allowed the selectors to develop a pool of six or seven fast bowlers (the same is not true of spinners, unfortunately) from whom they can pick in the knowledge that they will not be made to look foolish.
England's batting order has been settled to the point of inflexibility. If Collingwood had scraped together a few meaningful runs in Australia and delayed his retirement, the shop might still be closed. Astonishingly, the most vulnerable batsman now is Kevin Pietersen but it has not yet reached dropping stage. Ideally, there would have been a straighter fight between Bopara and Morgan.
The IPL ensured it was Bopara's place to lose. Morgan was perfectly entitled to take the $350,000 (£217,000) a year that the Knight Riders were offering him and on a pro rata basis will have earned $300,000 of that for his work in this year's competition. But he must also have been fully aware that he was putting at risk his opportunity to recapture his Test place.
Bopara, on the other hand, spurned the IPL's advances, late though they came. He was offered a $150,000 deal by Rajasthan Royals but decided that playing for Essex at the start of the season, knowing where it might lead, floated his boat rather more.
"It was a tough decision, but my ambition as a youngster has always been to play Test cricket and to play for my country," Bopara said at the time. "Not everything's about money. I've got to make sure I fulfil my ambitions and my talent as a cricketer.
"Although Twenty20 is a very important part of the game, Test cricket is always going to be the pinnacle. There's a Test place available and someone's got to take it and I realise this is the time to knuckle down and get some runs for Essex and take some wickets and take that Test spot."
Selectors could hardly fail to be won over by such a passionate declaration. Morgan has made the right noises about his desire to play Test cricket for England since throwing in his lot with them from Ireland. He is a thing of joy to behold in limited-overs cricket. But on this occasion he has perhaps not put his wallet where his mouth is.
Morgan is too abundantly gifted for him not to play a lot more Test cricket. The century he scored in trying circumstances for England against Pakistan at Trent Bridge last year was more accomplished than any of the three in successive innings that Bopara stylishly compiled against the West Indies.
But Morgan will have to score some runs for Middlesex before he can legitimately force his way into the Test reckoning again and the season's structure has given him little room for manoeuvre. Following the Lions match he has a Championship fixture next week but then nothing apart from Twenty20 until 19 June.
Bopara's Test career has already had two phases. In the first he made three successive ducks, at the start of the second came the trio of centuries before it petered out against Australia, when he looked increasingly perplexed, fidgety and indecisive about his approach and ended with another duck. Bopara deserves another go, to be given time to succeed as well as fail, but this time it may be the last time.
Lions' Test contenders
In-form swashbuckler who is back in pole position and whose seam bowling makes him doubly attractive. Has fragile temperament.
Irishman with more shots than a cocktail waiter. His six-week sojourn at the IPL is bound to invite questions about his desire to play Test cricket.
Bright middle-order player who performed well for Lions in the West Indies earlier this year. Has had slow start to the summer.
Diminutive Leicestershire right hander who has impressed all good judges. Has struggled to find consistent run.
And one from outside the Lions...
Hit the ground running this summer and can bowl seam up tidily which could count. Young and unformed as yet.Reuse content