Alastair Cook could be playing for his Ashes tour place when he walks out to face Pakistan at The Oval this week. It really has become that serious for an opener who was the England captain only five months ago.
One decent score, preferably a century, should ease most of the concerns about Cook's form, and – although Ricky Ponting and Co might choose to argue otherwise after last summer's Ashes "result" pitch – there are few better places, generally, than the home of Surrey CCC for batsmen trying to find a bit of heaven on earth.
But if Cook fails twice during the third Test against Pakistan then the theory that England are committed to giving him all summer to rediscover some form will start to look decidedly fragile.
"We have options," said the national selector Geoff Miller after announcing an unchanged XI and backing the team to secure a seventh straight victory. "There are lots of options in lots of areas. One of the options is to stay with what we've got, and we back Alastair to come through this patch which is a bit difficult for him.
"We consider everything and take everything into consideration. Alastair is not in the form he would like to be at the moment, but he is a battler and he will battle his way through it.
"We don't put a timescale on it. I think we are good enough now as selectors to know when the right time is, and now is not the right time to be making drastic changes. But if we have to make changes we will."
England are expected to take seven batsmen to Australia for the winter's Ashes series – and, provided Cook starts to put the record straight after scoring only 100 runs in seven Test innings against Bangladesh and Pakistan this summer, the players in question will be the half-dozen currently on duty, plus Ian Bell, who is recovering from a broken foot.
But, should Cook continue to look out of sorts, there will seem little point in sending a struggling opener to Australia, especially one whose Ashes average is a mere 26 after 10 Tests – an average achieved, incidentally, when he was playing pretty well. The options at the top of the order include promoting Jonathan Trott from first-drop or calling up the Hampshire opener Michael Carberry, who won a Test cap in Bangladesh in March – scoring 30 and 34 – when Cook was the captain in the absence of Andrew Strauss. And, if a new partner has to be found for Strauss, the final match of this series, at Lord's, would be a more comfortable starting point than Brisbane in November.
England will hope it does not come to that. But, whether or not Cook prospers this week, they should wrap up another series at the expense of opponents who not only gained little practice at watery Worcester on Friday and Saturday but also discovered that their new wicketkeeper, Zulqanain Haider, had fractured a little finger.
Squad to face Pakistan in the third Test of the series at The Oval on Wednesday.
England currently lead the four-match series 2-0.
AJ Strauss (Middlesex, capt) 33, 75
AN Cook (Essex) 25, 58
IJL Trott (Warwickshire) 29, 11
KP Pietersen (Hampshire) 30, 64
PD Collingwood (Durham) 34, 61
EJG Morgan (Middlesex) 23, 4
MJ Prior (Sussex, w'keeper) 28, 33
GP Swann (Nott'mshire) 31, 22
SCJ Broad (Nott'mshire) 24, 30
JM Anderson (Middlesex) 28, 50
TT Bresnan (Yorkshire) 25 5
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