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Graeme Swann took a blow on his right forearm from Tymal Mills, Essex v England, 2nd day, Chelmsford, July 1, 2013

It says much for England’s lacklustre performance in their Ashes warm-up match against Essex that it has, at times, been hard to distinguish which was the Test team tipped to win the Ashes and which the mid-table Division Two team.

While England’s top-order struggled for runs and their bowlers struggled for potency, Essex have had the fastest bowler of the match, a legspinner with a five-wicket haul and the only man in the top seven of either side to register a half-century. England also spurned three distinctly catchable chances. Few will recall performances in this match if England go on to retain the Ashes but, on the evidence of this game, they are some way short of their best heading into the series.

There are some mitigating factors. England are lacking their two first choice seam bowlers – Stuart Broad and James Anderson – from this game and came into it having played several weeks of white-ball cricket. Much the same could be said for Essex, too.

Perhaps more pertinently, England were without Graeme Swann throughout Essex’s first innings on the second day after he sustained a blow to his right forearm while batting. Swann was struck by a delivery from Tymal Mills, by some distance the quickest bowler on either side, and while he batted for another nine overs in recording his highest first-class score since he made 97 here six years ago, he was then taken to hospital for an X-ray. That showed no fracture, however, and while Swann will continue to receive treatment for bruising, he is expected to play a role with the ball later in the game.

That will be a huge relief for England. While James Tredwell, probably the second choice spinner bearing in mind Australia’s preponderance of left-handers, fared pretty well in the Champions Trophy, he has yet to take a first-class wicket this season while Monty Panesar was recently dropped by Sussex and has taken only 16 wickets in eight first-class games at an average of 43.37. Swann may have missed Champions Trophy games due to back and calf injuries, but he remains very much the first-choice option for Tests.

Swann was not the only England batsman to sustain a nasty blow from Mills. Tim Bresnan was struck in the same over, failing to duck out of the way of a bouncer and taking the ball on the grill of his helmet, but shrugged off the blow to reach the fourth first-class century of his career and his first since 2007.

It was a timely contribution. Not only did his stand of 187 for England’s eighth-wicket with Swann rebuild the innings from a precarious position, but it provided a reminder of his all-round qualities. With a decision yet to be made over who will fill the third seamer’s spot, Bresnan’s lower-order runs might yet prove crucial. He batted very well, too. He brought up his chanceless and increasingly dominant century with a pull for six and England declared immediately.

Still, this was an impressive performance from Mills. England requested that both he and Reece Topley play in this match in order to gain practice against left-arm bowling but, with Topley rested after several tough weeks of cricket, it was left to Mills to fill the role.

He only took up cricket in his mid-teens and currently cannot generate the in-swing that he will require to sustain a career at this level but, blessed with raw pace and a wonderfully uncomplicated attitude, he could develop into a significant player. He has a reputation, probably a fair reputation, for over-doing the short ball but on this evidence that is not such a fault. Few batsmen could enjoy facing him.

“It was the time to let them have a few,” Mills said afterwards. “The bowlers union went out of the window for a while there; you have to do what you have to do to get some wickets. It was a good opportunity for me to impress people at Essex and England. Hopefully this game will have earned me a chance to get back into the Essex side.”

Tom Craddock also impressed. The legspinner, who had not claimed a first-class wicket this season before this game, completed the second five-wicket haul of his career in the morning session as Swann, caught at mid-on as he tried to clear the infield, fell six runs short of what would have be his first first-class century since 2002 and Steven Finn missed the next delivery, a standard legbreak. Craddock does not currently have a huge amount of variation but maintained a consistent line and length and, albeit on a helpful surface, turned his legbreak appreciably.

In Swann’s absence, Kevin Pietersen and Joe Root were both called upon to bowl offspin. Pietersen was tidy initially but was then hit for three successive boundaries by the impressive Jaik Mickleburgh, while Root claimed career-best figures to underline his improvement as a bowler.

Root claimed only one first-class wicket in the 2012 season but here demonstrated his growing control and just enough spin to encourage the occasional mistake. He remains very much a support bowler and would be the first to admit he was somewhat flattered by his figures that included a slogged catch from Saj Mahmood and a cut shot that hit the back of Owais Shah’s bat and looped to the keeper.

England’s seamers, in effect competing for one place, enjoyed less happy days. Graham Onions, the pick of them, saw two chances go down off his bowling; one to Pietersen at mid-on offered by Hamish Rutherford on 10 and another when Matt Prior put down an outside edge when Ravi Bopara had 7. Later Pietersen put down another relatively simple chance at gully off the bowling of Finn to reprieve David Masters on 12.

Mickleburgh has a career average of just 25.99 and, before this game, had managed only 217 runs in 11 first-class innings this season but looked compact and patient in registering his highest score of the season. He may well have been unlucky with the umpire’s decision that denied him the fifth first-class century of his career.

Mickleburgh rated Onions the toughest of the bowlers to face. “He showed great skill levels,” he said. “He was getting the ball to reverse and made me play 95% of the deliveries I faced from him. Finn ran in hard and bowled some good balls in decent areas.”

The pitch, slowing all the time, offered little to England’s seamers but Onions and Finn were probably the more impressive of the trio. Bresnan’s only wicket came when Rutherford drove to mid-off, while Finn had Bopara caught behind by a beauty that demanded a stroke and then left the batsman; Tom Westley feeling for one outside off; and Masters, who will not bowl again the game after suffering what may turn out to be an Achilles strain, leg before playing across one.

Onions, meanwhile, bowled Mark Pettini with one that reverse swung through the gate leading Bresnan to admit that, while the runs could do his chances no harm, it is bowling form that will define selection.

“Lower-order runs could play a big part in winning Test matches so it’s nice to get some time in the middle,” Bresnan said. “But the bowlers will be picked on form. If I’m not bowling well enough, it doesn’t matter how many runs I’ve scored, the batting comes as a bonus. If it’s a straight shoot out it may help may cause but if I’m not bowling well enough it won’t matter at all. We’re backing the batters to get the runs.”