The selectors were right to pick Ian Bell instead of Robert Key at the start of the season, they were right to opt for Kevin Pietersen ahead of Graham Thorpe before the Ashes, and they showed strength in not bowing to pressure when England were defeated heavily by Australia in the first Test at Lord's.
But as they collected their thoughts this week, and contemplated possible replacements for Simon Jones, what would they have given for an England team without any fitness concerns before such a crucial match? England are still hopeful that Jones, whose magnificent bowling is one of the principal reasons why they lead this thrilling series 2-1, will recover from the ankle injury which caused him to limp off in the fourth Test.
England are not alone in having injury concerns. Australia have left Glenn McGrath out of their side to play Essex in a two-day match at Chelmsford over the weekend. McGrath's omission will not mean that he will miss the final Test but his absence suggests there are still concerns about his right elbow.
Pietersen was bullish about his England team-mate Jones's chances of playing in the fifth Test. "Simon is getting on really well," he said. "I think he will play. I spoke to him and he seems very confident."
The selectors will name Jones in England's squad which is to be announced at 9.30am tomorrow, and they will wait to see how his right ankle reacts to bowling before they make a decision. Glamorgan have a totesport League game that Jones could play in on Monday, but Fletcher, the England coach, rarely uses county matches to conduct fitness tests. He prefers to keep players under his control so that he can monitor them personally.
Should Jones's twice-daily visits to an oxygen chamber prove successful England will, for the first time in 120 years, field the same team in each Test of an Ashes series. The temptation to play Jones will be strong but there are bound to be risks in selecting him. It is not only the fact that England's attack could be reduced to four men if the injury were to flare up again - Australia would be perfectly entitled to refuse Michael Vaughan the use of a substitute, leaving him with only 10 fielders. Teams are only allowed to field a substitute for an injury that is picked up during the match and, considering Australia's incensed reaction to England's use of the 12th man, it is highly unlikely that Ricky Ponting would show any sympathy to Vaughan's predicament.
But who do England pick if Jones fails to recover in time? England claim to have a wealth of fast-bowling options, but who could they trust in a game of this magnitude? Chris Tremlett has been selected in each Ashes squad this summer but he is yet to make his Test debut, and his form in recent weeks has been indifferent. The 6ft 8in seamer has all the attributes you want to see in a fast bowler, and he showed promise in the three NatWest Series matches in which he played. But is this the sort of game in which you pick an untried bowler?
James Anderson holds a central contract and he has taken more than 50 first-class wickets for Lancashire this season, but his bowling for England has lacked confidence and the selectors would consider him to be too fragile.
England only need a draw to regain the Ashes yet it would be a defensive step to pick the all-rounder Paul Collingwood ahead of a specialist bowler. England have been successful because they have attacked Ponting's side and in Australia's second innings at Trent Bridge Vaughan found it difficult to take the final six wickets with only four bowlers. Andy Caddick has the experience and he enjoys bowling at The Oval, where he has taken 23 wickets in five Test appearances. But the 36-year-old has lost a yard of pace and has had fitness problems.
Gloucestershire's Jon Lewis has only just recovered from a broken hand. Lewis, like Tremlett, is yet to make his Test debut and his lack of pace could be exposed. Nottinghamshire's Ryan Sidebottom and Sussex's James Kirtley are both worthy of mention, and England could consider including a second spinner on a pitch with a history of helping this style of bowler.
Yet Tremlett remains the favourite and the Cheltenham and Gloucester final at Lord's today gives him the perfect stage on which to impress. The Oval pitch would suit his bowling, and England's attack could accommodate a bowler who may concede a few runs but should create chances.
England (probable squad for the fifth Test at The Oval starting on Thursday): M P Vaughan (capt), M E Trescothick, A J Strauss, I R Bell, K P Pietersen, A Flintoff, G O Jones (wkt), A F Giles, M J Hoggard, S J Harmison, S P Jones, C T Tremlett.
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- Essex, England
- Glenn Mcgrath
- Graham Thorpe
- Ian Bell
- Kevin Pietersen