Warm-up for Ashes turns into farcical nets session for England

England 413 & 217-3 Essex 278

Chelmsford

With a 15-year-old studying for his GCSEs among the opposition, and Owais Shah bowling in mid-afternoon, Andy Flower decided that enough was enough. Injuries to Essex's new-ball pair of David Masters (Achilles) and Tymal Mills (hamstring) threatened to make the match irrelevant and England concluded that the only way to have first-class preparation for the Ashes was to strip this warm-up game of its first-class status. Luckily for them, the request was granted by Essex and ratified by the ECB.

Essex agreed that their left-arm pace bowler Reece Topley, left out of the original team, could play. Boyd Rankin, who was in the original England squad, ran in from the other end, having been allowed by Warwickshire to play for Essex for the rest of the day.

England might have been happy, but the move was not universally appreciated. Some Essex members were certainly disgruntled at the removal of first-class status; spectators who paid £30 for a ticket might agree.

Tim Bresnan thought he had made his fourth first-class century, but his unbeaten 105 in England's first innings will now be erased from the records. Essex leg-spinner Tom Craddock, who took five wickets in England's first innings, suffers similar disappointment.

Despite the chuntering, it was easy to see why England took this step. The first Ashes Test starts a week today and facing Shah's friendly off-spin is not adequate preparation.

Essex academy product Aaron Beard, though, will remember fielding against his heroes for many years; whether his presence created the right impression in an Ashes warm-up game is another question altogether.

Two former England captains were unimpressed. As Alastair Cook faced Rankin, Nasser Hussain, from the television commentary box, suggested that England's needs would be as well served if they erected a net in the middle. Andrew Strauss, who was leading the team this time last year, said: "I'm sure the spectators were baffled by some of the things that were going on. You want the game to be as close to a proper game as possible.

"[When I was captain] we really tried to focus on using warm-up games to get into the right mentality. Rather than treating them as practice, we tried to win the game. We tried to be ruthless, bowl the opposition out, score big hundreds. Unfortunately, England can't do that at this stage. Whatever intensity there was has been lost by the changes to the bowling line-up, and the first-class status of the game being removed."

Mills' strained hamstring deprived the game of its most entertaining player. During the first two days, he struck Bresnan, Joe Root and Graeme Swann, whose bruised forearm required an X-ray. The scans revealed no fracture but when Swann came on to bowl for the first time in the match, he was hit for consecutive sixes by Mills, before dismissing him with the next ball.

Mills' and Craddock's last-wicket stand of 47 ensured Essex avoided the follow-on and when England began their second innings, Sajid Mahmood, the former England bowler, put down a simple caught-and-bowled chance when Cook had five.

Mills' hamstring strain, allied to the absence of Masters, weakened Essex's attack but they did strike before lunch. Attempting to hit across the line to Craddock, Root was lbw for 26.

Beard, a seam bowler, got Jimmy Anderson out in the nets and bounded about with the eagerness characteristic of his age. "I should be at school, but I got permission to come and help the county," he said. "I was nervous at first, seeing how hard they hit it, but with the crowd behind you, it's OK once you get used to it."

A game that was once first-class was no longer so when Topley and Rankin came on. Both Cook and Jonathan Trott retired out, for 82 and 79 respectively, at tea, to offer batting practice to Ian Bell and Jonny Bairstow, who came in ahead of Kevin Pietersen.

Yet the rain meant only eight more overs were possible as England reached 217 for 3. One day remains but by the time the first ball has been bowled at Trent Bridge next week this match will surely have been long forgotten.

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