England have given Stephen Harmison one final chance to prove that he is ready for Test cricket by naming him in their side for this morning's match against the Sri Lankan Board President's XI. The three-day game is England's last before the First Test in Kandy on Saturday and Harmison will compete for a place in the starting XI with James Anderson.
Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara will be involved in a shoot-out too. Shah and Bopara are fighting for the No 6 spot in England's order and the batsman who impresses most is set to get first crack. Paul Collingwood and Ryan Sidebottom have been left out of the practice match, a move that implies strongly that both will be playing in a week's time. Stuart Broad's omission suggests that he has little chance of playing in the First Test.
England have invested a considerable amount of time, effort and money in Harmison this winter. After a disappointing, injury-plagued summer, the fast bowler was sent to South Africa, where he spent three weeks working on his form and fitness with the Highveld Lions. Thirteen wickets in two first-class matches hinted that he was back to his best but a poor six-over spell in England's opening match of the tour suggested otherwise.
England are keen to get Harmison involved because he offers something different. At times he may be wayward but there are few bowlers in the world who offer his pace, bounce and hostility. Matthew Hoggard and Sidebottom are expected to fill the two other fast-bowling spots. Each is a consistent performer and England may gamble with Harmison because of what he brings.
The game is something of a fitness test for Anderson too. Anderson has been complaining about discomfort in his back since the second day of the tour. At practice he is constantly seen stretching the affected area and he is very much aware of the problem. If Anderson fails to convince the selectors of his fitness in the next three days, Harmison will play in Kandy.
"We try to make sure that we get the right amount of cricket into our lads but also give ourselves every chance to identify what we think is the best team for the First Test," said Peter Moores, the England coach. "The good form of Colly and Ryan has allowed us the chance to look at a couple of players and see where we get to. Colly has been here before, he is playing well and he doesn't think he needs to play.
"It is a find-out process for Stephen [Harmison]. By his own admission he has said that he is still getting there and he needs some fine-tuning. He will take a full part in the game, and the fact that we are only playing four bowlers means he will get a good workout. There are no guarantees for anybody, but all those playing in this game have a great opportunity to go out and stake a claim for Kandy."
Moores said Broad was unfortunate to be left out. It is a decision that lengthens England's tail. "From a batting point of view there is one place up for grabs, from a bowling point of view, it depends on the pitch in Kandy and what happens here," said Moores. "The bowling is more open than the batting. Broad is the best batter of our bowlers but those who bat between eight and 11 will have to work out how they are going to score runs.
"Jimmy [Anderson] proved he is a very skilful bowler, not just with the new ball but with his cutters and reverse swing. It is tough on [Broad] who is desperately keen to get out there and show what he can do. It was always going to be a tough decision, and it will be even tougher before the Test match."
Team: M P Vaughan (capt), A N Cook, I R Bell, K P Pietersen, O A Shah, R S Bopara, M J Prior (wkt), S J Harmison, M J Hoggard, J M Anderson, M S Panesar.