England preparations hit by early collapse

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The Independent Online

England's preparations for next week's first Test received a worrying setback here last night when five of the team's front-line batsmen were dismissed cheaply on the first morning of the three-day game against a New Zealand Select XI. The most disturbing dismissals were those of Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss, who both failed to play a substantial innings for the second time this week.

Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood gained plenty of practice during the recent one-day series, but the failures leave Vaughan and Strauss with one more innings to find form before taking on New Zealand in Hamilton.

Vaughan, as captain, is assured of his Test place but the form of Strauss, who scored just five before top edging a pull to the slips, must be of concern. England state that the decision to bat Strauss at three is tactical, believing that it will mess up the rhythm of the Black Caps bowlers, but it makes his position in the team far more vulnerable.

If the 30-year-old were to be omitted in Hamilton Ian Bell could quite easily slip back into the position he occupied in Sri Lanka, leaving the number six batting position open for Owais Shah. Kevin Pietersen was the only England batsman to look comfortable on a seaming pitch, scoring 50 before edging a loose drive through to the keeper. At lunch England's revamped batting line-up had collapsed to 96-6.

Moving Strauss to three was not the most intriguing decision made by the selectors. It was widely believed that Ryan Sidebottom's hamstring injury, an ailment that is not expected to keep him out of next weeks first Test in Hamilton, had given the selectors the opportunity to compare the bowling of a wayward Stephen Harmison with that of Stuart Broad before finalising the Test eleven.

But rather than allow Broad to compete with Harmison the selectors went for Chris Tremlett, Hampshire's giant fast bowler. On Tuesday Vaughan said that bounce is the commodity batsmen dislike most when facing fast bowling and at six feet eight inches Tremlett gets more bounce than most.

"Clearly the thinking behind me batting at three is that Alastair [Cook] and myself are quite similar players, and that can make it easier for a bowler to settle in and find a rhythm," said Strauss. "Vaughny and Alastair seemed to work quite well as an opening combination in Sri Lanka. They offer a left hand/right hand combination and they are very different types of players as well. The feeling is that they will offer the team a good launch pad.

"I have never seen why openers should be pigeonholed as purely openers when other batsmen seem to move up and down the order. Logically, it does not make a huge amount of difference coming in at three.

"It is a position I have not batted in often in the past, I think I batted there for a short time with Middlesex when Justin Langer and Mark Ramprakash opened. It is exciting. It is a new challenge, something different and we will see how it goes in the three day game."

Harmison could well be ousted in Hamilton too, should he fail to bowl with greater control this week. Tremlett was originally kept on in New Zealand to act as cover for Harmison, but he was due to return home in a week's time. But Harmison's erratic bowling on Tuesday has made Tremlett a realistic contender for his place.

"I was really impressed with Chris Tremlett last summer," admitted Strauss, "I was impressed with his hostility. None of the Indian players looked like they particularly enjoyed facing him, and they found it difficult to score off him. I am sure he is very keen to push his claim for a Test place."

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