Against a vintage West Indies side there might be some mitigation for the indecision that afflicts them. In a deciding Test, against a New Zealand side missing two of their leading pace bowlers, Simon Doull and Geoff Allott, it is bewildering. Five selectors or three, it makes no difference to England's batting.
Debutants, established players - only the captain, Nasser Hussain, looked comfortable. His month away from the middle may have been a blessing and before his dismissal to a rush of red blood, when he tried to hook Chris Cairns, he batted with assurance.
Sadly for him, the men he surrounds himself with do not appear capable. The Oval pitch may not be a shirt-front, but it has eased from day one when the seams found some purchase in the damp surface. Only Daniel Vettori, after he had made another niggling 50 with the bat, found some movement, and that only when he gave the ball some air.
The breach came, as so many have in this match, immediately after a break. Michael Atherton, in fine form before being recalled to England colours, fell to a ball in Dion Nash's second over after lunch that did little except land on an awkward line and length.
Into position late, Atherton edged to first slip where Fleming stooped to take a smart catch. He knew it was an unforced error and he showed his annoyance by cuffing the bail as he departed. It was an action that brought a quiet word, though no punishment, from the match referee, Peter van der Merwe.
As it does so often when England bat, the breach was not repaired and Darren Maddy, who had earlier got off the mark with his first ball in Test cricket, fell to the persevering Vettori. Like Chris Read's dismissal to Cairns's slower ball at Lord's, the dismissal reeked of naivety and having beaten the outside edge he slipped in an arm ball.
It was the old three-card trick usually reserved for schoolboys and tailenders. Instead of seeing the flatter trajectory and sensing danger, Maddy, mentally programmed to guard against turn, calmly watched the ball on to his off- stump.
The established players did not fare any better. Graham Thorpe and Alec Stewart may have been on home turf, but they could not have seemed more nervous had aliens landed from the balloon at the Vauxhall End. Indeed, Thorpe was almost run out when he was on one, the close call due to hesitation on his part rather than a misjudgement by Hussain.
Thorpe is playing like a man with an intolerable burden on his shoulders. Rumour is that he no longer enjoys his cricket. Apart from missing half of last winter's tour, he has been on the road for nine years and looks at odds with the game. The ball from Cairns that got him was a decent one, but he played it as if it had exploded rather than bounced a fraction higher than normal.
Stewart did not fare much better, especially against Vettori, who appeared to cause much indecision before forcing him to play on in the second over after tea. One of the side effects of making him keep is that he is more likely to start his innings against spin, which has never been a strength.
After Surrey's demise, it was the turn of Essex to fall with Ronnie Irani following two overs after his captain's demise. Again the ball from Cairns was a good one, but a suspicion of an edge, as well as the ball being high, meant that the all-rounder was unlucky.
After the good work on day one, England's bowlers allowed things to lapse against the tailenders and New Zealand added 79 for the ninth wicket, a stand that allowed them to reach a not uncompetitive total of 236. It is a worrying feature that players like Daniel Vettori keep scoring 50 and it is one they must overcome this winter in South Africa.
The problem appears to be a lack of killer instinct, one that was epitomised by Andy Caddick's first over of the day, when his fourth-ball bouncer struck Fleming a painful blow on the shoulder.
The tall paceman, who'd bowled beautifully on the first day, should have followed it up with another. Instead, he allowed Fleming, who was in serious discomfort and needed attention, to get behind one that pitched in his own half. It was an option Glenn McGrath would not have contemplated, even in a charity match.
For some reason, the blow galvanised Vettori into action. Having slashed and flashed his way to 54 at Lord's, the lessons ought to have been learnt, though Maddy did miss a difficult chance at third slip when he was on 11. Clearly bowlers have short memories and his second 50 of the series came from 47 balls.
In fact, it was only a crass misjudgment of Tufnell's length, playing back to a full-length ball, that caused his downfall. Fortunately O'Connor, the last man, reverted to type and was lbw to Caddick for one to leave his captain unbeaten on 66.
Scoreboard, page 23
THE OVAL SCOREBOARD
England won toss
NEW ZEALAND - First Innings
*S P Fleming not out 66
332 min, 234 balls, 3 fours
D L Vettori lbw b Tufnell 51
79 min, 48 balls, 7 fours
S B O'Connor lbw b Caddick 1
5 min, 2 balls
Extras (b9,lb9,w2,nb2) 22
Total (439 min, 102.1 overs) 236
Fall (cont): 9-235 (Vettori), 10-236 (O'Connor).
Bowling: Caddick 33.1-17-66-3 (nb1) (5-2-3-0 11-8-12-1 7-4-14-0 10-3- 37-1 0.1-0-0-1), Mullally 26-12-34-2 (w1) (7-5-5-0 8-3-7-1 4-1-7-1 7-3- 15-0), Giddins 16-4-41-1 (w1) (5-1-9-0 5-2-16-1 4-1-10-0 2-0-6-0), Tufnell 16-3-39-3 (nb1) (2-1-8-0 1-0-1-0 4-0-15 -2 7-2-9-0 2-0-6-1), Irani 11- 3-38-1 (5-1-16-1 2-1-6-0 3-1-7-0 1-0-9-0).
Progress: 200: 408 min, 96 overs.
Vettori's 50: 77 min, 47 balls, 7 fours.
ENGLAND - First Innings
M A Atherton c Fleming b Nash 10
D L Maddy b Vettori 14
*N Hussain c Bell b Cairns 40
G P Thorpe c Fleming b Cairns 10
A J Stewart b Vettori 11
M R Ramprakash not out 25
R C Irani lbw b Cairns 1
A R Caddick b O'Connor 15
Extras (lb4, w5, nb6) 15
Total (for 7, 66.5 overs) 141
Fall: 1-25, 2-29, 3-46, 4-87, 5-91, 6-94, 7-141.
To bat: A D Mullally, P C R Tufnell, E S H Giddins.
Umpires: G Sharp (Eng) and S Venkataraghavan (Ind).
TV replay umpire: J H Hampshire.
Match referee: P L van der Merwe.
Compiled by Jo KingReuse content