They may be on the same MCC side that take on Durham in today's curtain-raiser to the new cricket season, but Michael Vaughan, Ian Bell and Robert Key are all playing against each other. As far as these three are concerned this match is an England trial. There is more than just a victory over the reigning County Champions on offer at Lord's over the next four days – the No 3 berth in the England side is also up for grabs. And each of this trio wants it, badly.
Although Middlesex's Owais Shah replaced Bell for the last three Tests in the Caribbean, he did not do enough to lay claim to the spot. So while Shah heads off to South Africa to seek his Indian Premier League fortune, his three closest rivals have a chance of stepping in ahead of him.
This match is especially crucial for Vaughan, England's most successful captain. It represents the start of one of the toughest battles of his cricket career. While many feel that the place is Vaughan's to lose, he will still need weight of runs behind him. An in-form Vaughan can once again be the scourge of the Australians. His three hundreds in the 2002-2003 Ashes hurt the Aussies badly and the England captain, Andrew Strauss, has made it clear this week he would like the Yorkshire player back to form and back in his team.
Certainly after resigning the captaincy on losing the Test series against South Africa at Edgbaston last August, Vaughan will now be hell-bent on winning back his place. In a bid to find his touch last summer he opted out of the last Test against the Proteas, preferring to try to find some form with his county, so that he would be in contention for the winter tours to India and the West Indies. But in three Championship matches Vaughan scraped together just 43 runs in four visits to the crease.
As a member of England's Performance squad – he was again included in this year's selection announced yesterday – he hoped to rediscover his form last November, but their brief tour of India was postponed following the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and he has been reduced to pre-season training and Yorkshire's trip to Dubai, where he did manage to get into three figures.
Bell is another with everything to prove after being dropped following the first Test against the West Indies, which England lost, in Jamaica. He has managed only two scores over 50 in his last 10 Tests.
Key, who captains the MCC team today, won the last of his 15 caps in South Africa in 2005. This talented batsman's laidback manner is deceptive; he is perfectly capable of unravelling the best attacks on his day and will be as fiercely competitive as Vaughan and Bell, especially since he is also being linked to the England Twenty20 captaincy for the ICC World tournament that gets underway in June.
There is also competition for the fourth seamer's spot in the Test team. While Andrew Flintoff, James Anderson and Stuart Broad are shoo-ins for the first Test against the West Indies at Lord's, which starts on 6 May, there is an opportunity for Lancashire paceman Sajid Mahmood to add to his eight caps. His ability to swing the ball at pace would be useful against Australia, who struggled against Simon Jones when Vaughan led England to Ashes success in 2005. Mahmood and Essex wicketkeeper James Foster, who has been in the international wilderness since December 2002, were given extra reason to perform well in this match after national selector Geoff Miller singled them for special mention after including them in England's 25-man Performance Squad yesterday. Miller said: "They are pressing for a place in the England squads and we will watch Mahmood, Foster and Adil Rashid of Yorkshire with interest at Lord's."
England performance squad: Tim Ambrose, James Anderson, Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara, Stuart Broad, Paul Collingwood, Alastair Cook, Andrew Flintoff, James Foster, Stephen Harmison, Robert Key, Amjad Khan, Dimitri Mascarenhas, Sajid Mahmood, Monty Panesar, Samit Patel, Kevin Pietersen, Matthew Prior, Adil Rashid, Owais Shah, Andrew Strauss, Ryan Sidebottom, Graeme Swann, Michael Vaughan, Luke Wright.