At least it is elementary for England now. Win the Third Test, which starts at Trent Bridge on Thursday, and hopes of regaining the Ashes live on. Lose, draw or tie and they will remain with Australia for an unprecedented seventh successive series. The smart money is going only one way and there can surely be none of the foolish kind going anywhere.
That Australia deserve to be 2-0 ahead is in no doubt; that England have had rotten luck is unquestionable. It is also true that when the tourists have been presented with an opening they have sought to burst through it while England have seen a gap only to run the other way.
The home side will announce their squad this morning. Their predicament was summed up by the fact that they were not finalising it until last night. This was not to meant to happen in the age of central contracts but circumstances dictated that the selectors had to go out again yesterday and watch candidates in Championship matches. David Graveney, the chairman, was at Lord's looking at various batsmen and the left-arm spin of Phil Tufnell; Duncan Fletcher, the coach, was at Headingley to examine the credentials for the third time of the tyro paceman from nowhere, Steve Kirby.
England's long injury list has been decisive and the man they have missed most will again be absent. Nasser Hussain, their influential captain whose little finger was broken in the First Test, can still not hold a bat. He may make a vast improvement but there comes a time when you have to strike a balance between his value to the team and his lack of match practice.
England's improvement had been based on continuity of selection and eight or nine players have been central to the cause. Remove even one of them and the shift is of seismic proportions. With five players absent through injury – Hussain, Graham Thorpe, Michael Vaughan, Matthew Hoggard and Ashley Giles – the difficulties seem insurmountable.
Graveney was in no doubt yesterday that Hussain's absence had been crucial. That is probably why he was reluctant to confirm that he would not play in Nottingham. "You expect injuries but the number we have suffered is probably going over the top," he said. "Nasser's the captain so it's pretty obvious that we will feel it when he's not there. But I should also say that the attitude of the men who have had to step in, Alec Stewart and Mike Atherton, has been exemplary. It is a peculiar position for ex-captains sometimes but they have both been ready and willing to step in when asked. It is not easy to assume command of what is in effect somebody else's team."
Of course, it was Atherton's team for 52 consecutive matches. When he withdrew gratefully to the ranks he did so with a parting shot that he would never do it again. After Hussain was injured at Edgbaston in the First Test and Stewart withdrew his candidacy there were no other realistic options. Indeed if Atherton were to pull off the unexpected at Trent Bridge there might be a case for keeping him in situ. Not that he would be convinced. He has made no secret of his desire to hand back the stewardship to Hussain. Despite Atherton's admirable record for England this may have worked against the team. Who would want to play for a leader you know does not want to lead?
Since Lord's it has been like the old days, with speculation mounting about England. Injuries have been the main cause but when the Aussies are in town it is customary among pundits to opt for panic and it is equally customary for the selectors to follow their lead. In 1921, when Australia were running away with it, England used 30 players, in 1989 when they were doing likewise the number reached 29. That will not happen this time, partly because, although there may be more professional cricketers now, most are obviously short of the required level, but largely because the selectors refuse to budge from their oft-expressed policy. They will give players the chance to fail.
Thus, many names have been bandied about but it is unlikely that there will be any revolution. For example, Phil Tufnell is the best spinner in the country, he has 44 wickets this season at 23 runs each and a record against Australia much superior to Robert Croft's. But Croft is the man in place, he was the man who was there in Colombo in March when England beat Sri Lanka, he may add a few runs and he will play at Trent Bridge.
Similarly, the batsmen will be unchanged. This means that Ian Ward, whose frailty on the back foot has been utterly exposed will be in the side again. In 1921 and 1989 he would have been jettisoned by now, probably for good. It is correct that the selectors should persevere with him. Selection is about identifying the right men and seeing them through. Ward has a stable character.
Usman Afzaal will also be in the squad. The Nottinghamshire batsman played at Edgbaston, where his fielding looked weak and he did not score runs. As Graveney said yesterday, players can do something about their fielding. Afzaal has been told what he must do, the point will not be laboured. In any case, Fletcher's views on Afzaal's shortcomings are not as severe as some observers'.
If England's batting has simply not been good enough so far it is arguable that their bowling has given greater cause for concern. Andrew Caddick and Darren Gough have not had the support they needed and have suffered accordingly. Australia have also been careful to go after them, knowing the back-up threat was non- existent. Therefore, loyalty cannot save Dominic Cork now. He is not quick enough, he has lost his swing, his aggression, normally admirable, makes him somewhat risible now. Craig White has also been off colour – more grey than White – but the lack of other serious all-rounders precludes a change.
The candidates for the spare seam bowling place are Chris Silverwood, Alex Tudor, Alan Mullally and Kirby. Silverwood's cause has not been helped by a niggle which allowed Yorkshire to drop him. Tudor's cause has suffered because Surrey have no game in this round of matches and he needs to bowl. Mullally's cause has been talked up by his erstwhile Hampshire colleague, Shane Warne, and he took five wickets against the Australians yesterday. Kirby has taken a clutch of wickets quickly, and Graveney has frequently observed that fast bowlers break through quickly and must be elevated quickly. But most of his success has been at Headingley and unless Fletcher spotted something extra he will surely not be risked against such a potent batting side on the much flatter deck at Trent Bridge. It may that he will be picked in the squad for experience.
The selectors are having to earn their crust the hard way this season. They will announce not only the Test team this morning but their plans for the squad of 25 one-day players who will form the nucleus of the 2003 World Cup party. That, too, has not been easy to pick. Whatever else England do at Nottingham – apart from winning the toss – they must go for broke. It will not matter if they go bust in doing so.Reuse content