The spirit of Headingley '81, when Ian Botham and Bob Willis wrested a Test match from Australia and restored a nation's belief in lost causes, has not seduced England's selectors into making any bold decisions this time. Although their captain, Nasser Hussain, returns for the fourth Test following his broken finger, and Alan Mullally is recalled after 21 months in the wilderness, there is no place at Headingley for the wild-card romance of such exciting but wayward talents as Andrew Flintoff or Steve Kirby.
With the Ashes series lost, and with it the two Test Championship points available for each series, there was a case for wild experimentation, though the spectre of a 5-0 whitewash and the continuing absence of Graham Thorpe and Michael Vaughan probably removed it. In any case, Headingley's reputation as a seam bowlers' paradise is not the place to toss in callow youth, hence the return of Mullally, who, following a prolonged rib injury, last played Test cricket in South Africa during 1999.
A steady performer, who took 8 for 90 for Hampshire last week, the left-arm Mullally will contest the fourth seamer's place with Somerset's Richard Johnson, a late replacement for Chris Silverwood at Trent Bridge. Other bowlers, such as Leicestershire's James Ormond, were considered, but Mullally's recent form won him the vote.
"He gets the ball into the business area," the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, said. "He's not bowling as fast, but he is accurate and he doesn't go for many runs, which could be important at Headingley. The only reason he wasn't called up for the last Test at Nottingham was that he left the field against Australia as a precaution against a side strain and, as selectors, we had to be careful that didn't flare up again during the Test."
Unless the pitch has undergone a facelift as controversial as the one involving the Sir Len Hutton gates (the monument depicts Sir Len being watched by a group of Asian ladies wearing saris, a juxtaposition that seems to have all Yorkshire in a flap), England will play four pacemen and so use their 21st player of the series.
Such numbers usually denote turmoil in the camp, though this time, England can lay the blame – fairly in most cases – on injury. By contrast, Australia, set to miss their captain, Steve Waugh, with a torn calf, will be on their 12th, a place almost certain to fall to the 25-year old Simon Katich.
Given that England's bits-and-pieces cricketers have been ruthlessly exposed by Australia, it was only proper that they should now be removed, setting the stage – Alec Stewart's dual role aside – for a side comprised entirely of specialists.
"Ian Ward and Craig White have both been dropped," Graveney said. "Ward has been batting out of position and I'm certain he has the character to bounce back."
Before being axed, Craig White had been an integral part of England's improvement prior to this series. Yet this summer, his bowling has been poor and his batting tame, as Australia have gone about their systematic dismantling of England's Ashes dreams.
There is the suspicion that the all-rounder has been masking an injury with pain-killers. If true, the gamble has not worked and one hopes White has not jeopardised his chances of being fit enough to tour India in November, where the bare pitches will better suit his front-footed batting and reverse-swing bowling.
White's place will fall to Usman Afzaal, who will add to the cap he won at Edgbaston, where he looked out of his depth. By staying loyal to him, the selectors are showing commendable logic in the face of his recent form with the bat, where compared to David Fulton at Kent and Sussex's Richard Montgomerie, the left-hander's offerings have been modest.
Central contracts could have been a crucial factor over the forthcoming back-to-back Tests if England had been faced with a tight series. But such has been speed with which the home side have been dispatched, that Australia have barely broken sweat.
With Australia leading 3-0, their minds set on 5-0 and their bodies still relatively fresh, England may yet need a repeat of the '81 miracle merely to prevent a whitewash.
ENGLAND ASHES SQUAD
(Fourth Test, Headingley, Thursday): N Hussain (Essex, capt), M A Atherton (Lancashire), M E Trescothick (Somerset), M A Butcher (Surrey), M R Ramprakash (Surrey), U Afzaal (Nottinghamshire), A J Stewart (Surrey, wkt), A J Tudor (Surrey), R D B Croft (Glamorgan), A R Caddick (Somerset), D Gough (Yorkshire), A D Mullally (Hampshire), R L Johnson (Somerset).Reuse content