With the Ashes lost – some might say donated – for another 18 months, England's selectors must turn their troubled thoughts to avoiding a whitewash instead. Australia have never won an Ashes series 5-0 in Blighty before and if a ticker-tape parade in every major Australian city is to be prevented, England must pick a team to win at least one of the back-to-back Tests coming up at Headingley and the Oval.
Win, you chortle. What is wrong with a draw? Well, Australia, with or without their captain, Steve Waugh, play Test cricket with the fast forward button fully depressed. Draws are simply not in the equation, not unless rain falls for at least three of the five days. So England need to pick a side to win, though this could change between Headingley, where seam bowling normally dominates, and the Oval, where two spinners are not out of the question.
Yet whatever the line-up for the final two Tests, two things have become apparent in the three drubbings dished out so far: you cannot pick players with suspect techniques (Ian Ward); nor those, like Craig White, who offer a bit of bat to go with ball.
When fully fit, White, who just scored a timely career-best 186 against Lancashire, will do a good job against most opponents in world cricket, but Australia's depth of excellence means you have to play your best batsmen and your best bowlers to compete. Neither he or Ward are in that category at the moment and must be dropped, though White deserves to be included in the winter touring squad for India when it is announced on 28 August, along with the first year's intake for the Academy and the one-day squad for Zimbabwe.
Untimely injuries have largely prevented England playing their first-choice batsmen, but with Nasser Hussain, Graham Thorpe and Michael Vaughan all likely to be mended by the fourth Test next Thursday, the selectors must decide whether proven class without time in the middle is an adequate reason for selection. So far, only Hussain, in a second team match, has spent any time in the middle. Vaughan's return for the Yorkshire Seconds was hampered by rain but Thorpe is hopeful he can play in Surrey's National League matches tomorrow and Tuesday.
As captain and the one most advanced in terms of recovery, Hussain will almost certainly play at Headingley. Although both should be ready for the Oval on 23 August, Thorpe and Vaughan are less likely to be involved at Headingley, which probably means a second cap for Usman Afzaal and reprieve for Mark Ramprakash, whose lemming rush at Shane Warne sealed England's second innings collapse at Trent Bridge. Mind you, Ramprakash, who foolishly injured an ankle playing football during a rain break on Thursday may have his fitness queried.
Headingley, depending on whether you are a seam bowler or a batsman, offers distinct versions of heaven and hell. A spinner, probably Robert Croft will be picked as cover, in case the pitch proves an anomaly, but the main decision, now that local lads Matthew Hoggard, Chris Silverwood, Ryan Sidebottom and Steve Kirby are all injured, will be over which seamer/swinger, joins the pace trio of Darren Gough, Andy Caddick and Alex Tudor.
The choice, if logic prevails, will surely fall to one of Richard Johnson, Alan Mullally, Martin Bicknell or James Ormond. Johnson, who joined the squad at Trent Bridge as a like for like replacement (for which read bang it in) to Silverwood, is the man in possession. But Headingley, especially if shrouded in cloud, is what is known in the game as a "kiss the top pitch", a type upon which Mullally and Bicknell, both 32, and amongst the wickets for their counties, are both marvellous if ageing exponents.
If the selectors decide to announce a squad to cover both Tests, Phil Tufnell may find his name among the pigeons for the Oval. With Ashley Giles needing until Christmas to recuperate from his achilles tendon injury, Tufnell will almost certain to go to India. A dusty surface in SE11 has seen him win Tests before, one of them against Australia. If England go 4-0 down, the selectors could well call on him again.
Possible England Squad (v Aus, fourth Test, Headingley, 23-27 Aug): *N Hussain, M A Atherton, M E Trecothick, M A Butcher, ÝA J Stewart, M R Ramprakash, U Afzaal, A J Tudor, A R Caddick, D Gough, A D Mullally, R D B Croft M P Bicknell. Oval (add): G P THorpe, M P Vaughan, P C R Tufnell.Reuse content