Expect England to say 'same again' but Bopara may be in last-chance saloon

After The Oval debacle, the second Test is now the most important of this team's life

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The Independent Online

In the bad old days, the sort of defeat that England suffered this week would have supplied a double whammy. First, there would have been calls for blood-letting of immense proportions, which the selectors would then have been only too ready to administer.

What fun it would have been. Journeymen from the shires and young men with a promising aspect would have been summoned to rescue the nation. At least two changes in the team could have been guaranteed and up to five not entirely out of the question.

Those who doubt the old-time liking for wielding the axe in the back should recall the 1989 series against Australia, when drubbing followed drubbing and 29 players were fielded in the series. Or the 1995 series against West Indies, when matters were much more even but England still needed 21 men.

Instead of which, South Africa's victory in the first Test by an innings and 12 runs at The Oval after making an unprecedented total of 637 for 2 is likely to lead to precisely no change whatsoever in England's cast when it is announced tomorrow. The 13 who turned up in London are likely to be invited to make the journey to Leeds for the second, lip-smacking match in the Investec series, with the 11 who mucked up so cataclysmically likely, if not certainly, to be awarded one more cap each.

England have made no excuses about their ineffectual display in the series opener, nor have they tried to conceal the grandeur of their opponents. After losing the first day when onlookers feared for their lives for the rest of the summer, South Africa were relentless. There are concerns now only for one team.

While the selectors will stick with the players who have taken England so far, it is of course a policy that now has a limited shelf life. Were this lot to fail again they really would have to do what selectors are paid to do and select.

The next two matches could define this England team for ever and it is conceivable that it will take only one. As it is, the selectors may have spent several angst-ridden hours wondering whether they got it right.

Whatever has been said, the batting has been a concern all year. Outsmarted by spin in four matches in Asia, it now found itself undermined twice by a beautifully balanced attack whose members recovered from a moderate first day to deliver on all their well-honed research.

Their lines of approach were invariably correct, no better demonstrated than the serious short ball working-over received by Kevin Pietersen from Morne Morkel in the second innings. He has usually found a way of dealing with this throughout his career but it is fair to assume that Pietersen can expect much more of the same with precious little room for front-foot driving from now on.

But Pietersen and, to some extent for now, the rest can look after themselves. It is on Ravi Bopara that attention has been and will be focused. The feeling is that Bopara, twice dismissed to poor shots, has a maximum of four innings to make something of his Test career. James Taylor, of Nottinghamshire, has been waiting around long enough and Bopara is in his fourth guise as an England batsman.

If Bopara will hang on, one of the fast bowlers may not be so lucky. This would not be fair. True, they ran out of ideas last week but it should not always be the bowlers who take the blame, as seems to have become common practice.

There is a clear desire among almost everybody to select Steve Finn in the starting line-up. If the 13 which went to The Oval is again picked, that decision will be left to Andy Flower, the coach, and Andrew Strauss, the captain, as the selectors on the ground.

Bresnan did not have much going for him in the first Test but it would be extremely tough for him to be the only one to pay the price – and on his home ground too. A case could be made for overlooking Stuart Broad, who was the least effective of the seaming trio as South Africa's innings wore on and on. But that moment has not arrived yet.

Nor has that for sweeping change. It is unthinkable that England could be cast aside so remorselessly again but this is the most significant Test of this team's life.

Probable squad

For second Test against South Africa, starting on Thursday at Headingley


Age; Tests

A J Strauss (capt) 35; 98

J M Anderson 29; 71

R S Bopara 27; 13

I R Bell 30; 78

T T Bresnan 27; 15

S C J Broad 26; 48

A N Cook 27; 81

S T Finn 23; 14

G Onions 29; 9

K P Pietersen 32; 87

M J Prior (wkt) 30; 56

G P Swann 33; 45

I J L Trott 31; 32