As the Ashes will remain with Australia if they either win or draw next Wednesday's third Test, England are set to go on the offensive at Trent Bridge by picking five bowlers. Yet, like most of England's attacking options this summer, it is a tactic that will be compromised by injury and the likely absence of their captain, Nasser Hussain.
Hussain, who missed the Lord's Test after cracking a finger in the opening match at Edgbaston, hopes to inform the selectors of his fitness this evening. This is reliant on him having a bat in the nets and the decision could be postponed as late as tomorrow morning should he need more time.
The deadline is self-imposed and unusual for a side that has had up to 15 players meeting before a match. Hussain knows the disruption uncertainty can cause a team and does not want to fuel endless speculation in the media by "leaving the whole thing up in the air next week".
At present the likelihood of him leading England next Thursday, appears pretty remote. Although the three weeks healing time is up, he is struggling to wear a batting glove –not the greatest reassurance when set to face the nastiest pace attack since the infamous quartets put out by the West Indies during the Eighties.
"It's an unusual injury," said Hussain yesterday. "Outside of a batting glove it feels fine. But once it is twisted and bent inside one, it doesn't feel much better than when I first did it. Although it is improving on a daily basis, at the moment I cannot grip the bat and if the team was announced today, I simply wouldn't be fit."
Short of a minor miracle then, Michael Atherton looks certain to add yet another Test to his record-breaking CV as captain. On the receiving end of Australian beatings for over a decade, he will be realistic about England's chances of getting one back, especially with Steve Waugh's success-driven side now eyeing a 5-0 whitewash.
If he has sifted through the wreckage of Lord's, Atherton will know that he is a quality batsman [Graham Thorpe] down and a support bowler or two light. The first cannot be rectified sooner than Headingley, when Thorpe hopes to be fit again, but the latter is likely to be addressed immediately with the inclusion of a spinner and a fresh pace bowler for Trent Bridge's more benign surface.
Top-class English spinners are not abundant and with Ashley Giles set to finally have an operation on his troublesome Achilles tendon this Monday, the pool has dwindled by about 25 per cent. Giles will be out for four to six months, which means he will almost certainly miss both the tours –Zimbabwe and India – scheduled before Christmas.
Of the other few worth mentioning, Phil Tufnell has 44 county wickets (about as meaningful a currency these days as the Bolivian peso), while Robert Croft has the loyalty card, having played during the winter. Croft would also – and this probably makes him favourite – bolster the batting, but against Glenn McGrath and Co this is not guaranteed.
The pace option is marginally less clear cut. As strike bowlers Darren Gough and Andy Caddick have largely been able to hold their own, but have been let down by the support bowling which has failed to bottle up Australia's shot-happy batsmen. Both Craig White and Dominic Cork have leaked around four runs an over, almost two runs too many unless wickets are tumbling at regular intervals, which they have not.
Although neither looks 100 per cent fit, Cork is favourite for the chop, his famed effervescence on the pitch as worrying as liver salts to the Aussies. If that appears harsh, there are sounder reasons to drop him, the main one being the loss of both his outswinger and a yard of pace. At Trent Bridge, such shortcomings would reduce him to cannon fodder, particularly if the heatwave carries on.
With Chris Silverwood missing the current Roses match with a back twinge and therefore making him doubtful for next week, the obvious replacement for Cork would be Alex Tudor, though both Alan Mullally and Yorkshire's Steve Kirby could also be in the shake-up.
Tudor, who dismissed both Waughs on his Test debut in Australia, has been in the runs and wickets recently and is overdue a recall. His last appearance for England was against New Zealand two years ago, when as a nightwatchman he scored an unbeaten 99 in the first Test to finish on the winning side.
With him or Croft at eight, White could move up a place in the order to seven while Ian Ward, who is under pressure from Usman Afzaal and Owais Shah, could take Thorpe's place should Hussain not make it.
As an attacking option it is hardly nuclear, but without the captain it is about the only way to field the extra bowler without turning the lower order into an achilles heel.
PROBABLE ENGLAND SQUAD (v Australia, Third Test, Trent Bride, Thursday): N Hussain (captain if fit), M A Atherton, M E Trescothick, M A Butcher, M R Ramprakash, I J Ward, A J Stewart (wkt), C White, A J Tudor, R D B Croft, A R Caddick, D Gough, U Afzaal, C E W Silverwood (if unfit, A D Mullally).Reuse content