England 369 Invitational XI: Strauss's stroke of bad luck mars Test build-up

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The Independent Online

England gained useful batting practice on their first day of meaningful Test preparation in New Zealand but it was the wrong players who scored runs and spent valuable time at the crease.

Owais Shah, Alastair Cook and Ian Bell, who struck 96, 85, and 75 respectively, should all be in reasonable touch after a month playing for England's limited-over side; it was Andrew Strauss, Michael Vaughan and Tim Ambrose who needed practice most ahead of next week's first Test against New Zealand. But each failed to make a significant contribution to the total of 369, spending more time in the nets facing throwdowns from a coach on an adjoining pitch than in the middle.

The predicament is not yet worthy of panic but Strauss, Vaughan and Ambrose, who has been earmarked to keep wicket ahead of Phil Mustard in Hamilton, each now have a maximum of three innings and four days of competitive cricket to get themselves in top form before the first Test. England's management will be hoping that their bowlers can dismiss an Otago Invitation XI quickly this morning so that further quality batting practice becomes available.

Strauss was the batsman most in need of a score. The opener was dropped from England's pre-Christmas tour of Sri Lanka and has spent the last six weeks in New Zealand playing for Northern Districts in an effort to make sure he is primed for the Test series.

Strauss scored a 100 in his final match for the state but James Whitaker, Peter Moores and Vaughan, England's on-venue selectors, will have wanted to see more from the 30-year-old to convince them he is ready to play. His dismissal was unfortunate and unusual. On four he bottom-edged a defensive push at Mark Gillespie on to his foot and the ball began rolling back on to his stumps. In an attempt to stop the ball hitting his wicket the left-hander, in hockey style, tried to knock it away. Strauss hit the ball but he also clipped his off stump, dislodging a bail in the process.

Vaughan played several sumptuous strokes in his 27, including a couple of trademark swivel pulls and an extra cover drive for four, but he needed more than a cameo. His innings ended when he pushed at an innocuous ball from the left-arm medium-pacer Craig Smith and was caught behind.

Ambrose, on two, wastefully chipped the gentle off-spin of Will Somerville to short midwicket. After spending three weeks watching Mustard keep wicket ahead of him, one would have expected Ambrose to put a higher price on his wicket.

Cook's batting was a revelation. If he had displayed such straight play during the one-day series, few would have questioned his place at the top of England's order. Admittedly, the bowling was modest but Gillespie and Iain O'Brien have played Test cricket in the past three months. Cook struck 17 boundaries in the 81 balls he faced, most being driven through the covers or clipped off his legs.

Bell's performance, in comparison, was watchful. On 59 he retired to give those in greater need practice, but was forced to return when England's middle and lower order failed to take the opportunities created by Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood having a deserved rest. Of the three major innings, Shah's was the most significant. In Sri Lanka, Shah competed with his close friend Ravi Bopara for the final batting place in the Test side and here it is against his Middlesex team-mate Strauss. Vaughan had implied that Strauss would play in Hamilton, but if the opener were to fail in his remaining innings and Shah posted another big score, who knows?

Shah rode his luck at first, surviving a strong caught behind appeal on 28. He was dropped at mid-on on 38 too. But with time his innings blossomed and a 100 looked inevitable before he was brilliantly caught by Gillespie, diving high and to his left at short fine leg, attempting to sweep Somerville for four.

"Today was about doing enough to gain selection for the three-day game that starts on Wednesday," Shah said. "I might be second-guessing the selectors but I think we will most probably play the Test team in that game. I would like to think that this innings will put my name in the hat for that match. If I could then get some runs in that game, I would like to think that I would be in the mixer for the first Test."