Darren Gough has an important decision to make at the conclusion of the NatWest Series. After successfully coming through this summer's one-day programme the England fast bowler has to decide whether he is prepared to risk losing everything he has worked hard to reclaim during the past three weeks by going in search of the item he cherishes most - his Test place.
Following the ongoing injury to his right knee, which kept him out of England's one-day side for almost a year and has excluded him from the Test team for virtually two, it is a position the 32-year-old cannot have expected to be in.
Gough will be encouraged by the desire of England's two captains, Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, to see him bowling in the Tests against South Africa. But this does not help his predicament. Gough and his physiotherapist at Yorkshire, Wayne Morton, realise that by trying to prove his fitness for the Tests, he risks shortening his career.
"If he continues to manage his knee as well as he currently does, I feel he can remain a force in one-day cricket for another three or four years," Morton said. "He could even make the next World Cup. Gough is not cured, you don't cure wear and tear injuries, it is how you manage them that counts.
"If he played both Test and one-day cricket it would knock years off the end of his career. He knows this and it is why he is taking time to think it through. He is aware that his knee would not last for too long if he played both. At Yorkshire he is being well looked after. He is too good an asset to be discarded. England and the game of cricket need to do the same."
Gough's predicament also puts the England selectors in a difficult position. With only so many deliveries left in his degenerative knees they would want Gough to bowl the majority of these for England. To gain such control of the player England would need to put Gough on a central contract. This is a gamble the selectors would be reluctant to take on a player with such a poor fitness record.
Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, did not need to watch Gough destroy Zimbabwe at Bristol on Sunday to realise the positive effect he can have on the side. Throughout Fletcher and Hussain's term in charge Gough has been England's most influential bowler.
"We need his experience, but we need a fit Darren Gough in the Test side," Fletcher said. "How fit he needs to be is debatable, but we need to be sure he can have five or six sessions in the field and still come back a day and a half later.
"The only person who knows whether he is fit enough to play Test cricket is Darren.I cannot say that he is fit enough to bowl 25 overs one day and maybe another 15 overs the next. Bowling 40 overs in two days and standing out in the field is a hell of a lot different to just bowling 10 overs and being out there for 50 overs. We need to see that he can get through a four-day game with a lot of overs under his belt after standing out in the field for a day and a half."
Attempting to meet these goals is the biggest risk to Gough's career and in many ways he would do best to stick with what he has rather than taking a gamble he may never have the chance to correct.
England and South Africa will contest today's match at Edgbaston and Saturday's final at Lord's with one eye on the Test series. They will be at full strength in an attempt to ensure the momentum is firmly behind them when they return to Birmingham for the first of five Tests in a fortnight. For England Robert Key will not play. The Kent opener has returned home to play in his county's Championship match against Nottinghamshire at Maidstone.
ENGLAND (from): M P Vaughan (Yorkshire, capt), M E Trescothick (Somerset), V S Solanki (Worcestershire), J O Troughton (Warwickshire), A Flintoff (Lancashire), A McGrath (Yorkshire), R Clarke (Surrey), C M W Read (Nottinghamshire, wkt), A F Giles (Warwickshire), D Gough (Yorkshire), J M Anderson (Lancashire), Kabir Ali (Worcestershire), S J Harmison (Durham), R L Johnson (Somerset).
SOUTH AFRICA (from): G C Smith (capt), M V Boucher (wkt), P R Adams, N Boje, A C Dawson, H H Dippenaar, H H Gibbs, A J Hall, J H Kallis, C K Langeveldt, A Nel, M Ntini, S M Pollock, D Pretorius, J A Rudolph, M van Jaarsveld, M N van Wijk.
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