Long road back for England but if any team can do it, this lot can

Expect selectors to go with same team for Headingley humdinger against rampant South Africans

It is a long way back for England from here. The size of their defeat in the First Test against South Africa, by an innings and 12 runs, was merely the half of it.

The nature of the reversal, being bowled out twice on a benign pitch after apparently seizing control of the contest and taking only two of their opponents' wickets, was perhaps the bigger half, as it were. Everybody knew that the tourists were a formidable side, but nobody expected this.

England have lost by huge margins often before. They spent most of the 1980s and 1990s being pushed from pillar to post by West Indies and Australia respectively. But that was then, when they were frequently a team of modest talent and aspiration, and this is now when by dint of gifted players, conscientious selection, hard work and attention to detail, they have become the world's number one Test XI.

Make no mistake, England remain a strong force. If that makes the events at The Oval the more astonishing – South Africa scored 637 for two for goodness sake which is still causing head shaking three days later – it is also reason to believe that if anybody can come back this lot can.

Occasionally, under the coach- captaincy unit of Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss, they have found strength in adversity. In recent years, England have suffered heavy losses at Headingley against Australia, The Oval against Pakistan, Perth against Australia and Galle against Sri Lanka and responded by winning the matches that followed.

How they might do it this time at Headingley next week or at Lord's a fortnight later is more perplexing. When South Africa saw an opening at The Oval they barged through it and slammed the door shut in England's face. Neither bludgeon nor lock pick was about to open it.

South Africa were prepared, rigorous and ruthless. They looked like a team covered in every department.

Calls for change in the home dressing room are natural and the fact that England have lost five of their past nine Test matches should also not be lost on the players.

The early guess is that the XI who took the field in London will also play in Leeds. There will be no tinkering with personnel, although Steve Finn and his supporters are champing at the bit, with the idea of playing only five batsmen suddenly fashionable.

The batting has failed persistently since the overwhelming victory against India last summer. In only two of their nine Test matches this year have England had an innings with a total of more than 400, which can usually, though not invariably, be relied upon to inure a team from defeat. In the nine matches before that they passed 400 in eight of them, which included going past 500 three times and 600 and 700 once each.

Ian Bell, who nearly played the defiant innings that was so desperately needed to force the draw on Monday, repeated the team mantra: "That's the one great thing about this team. We talk and there will be honesty."

From all parties after this hammering it needed the sort of honesty to be found at addicts' conventions. "I'm an international batsman and I keep playing hopeless shots."

There will be no changes to the batting and nor should there be at this early stage in this crucial series but if there is a defect in selection continuity it is that teams sometimes need re-energising with fresh players. In going back to Ravi Bopara for this series, England knew they were going back to more of the same and it needs to come off quickly.

The most shocking aspect of recent events is the lack of wickets. In his candid moments this year, Jimmy Anderson, the leader of England's attack, has always resisted any invitations to rubbish the batsmen on the grounds "the day will come when it's our turn to go round the park".

He cannot have imagined this though, especially when accompanied by yet more tame batting. It was the first time in three years that England have had to bowl more than 1,000 balls at the opposition and on the 32 previous occasions that they had conceded a total of 600 or more, they had never taken fewer than four wickets, and that was twice in 1993 against a rampant Australia.

But this bunch went into the match as the best bowling attack in the world. At Headingley they have to restate their credentials.

Although the pitch is said not to be the bowler-friendly surface of yore, there have been only two draws in the last 27 matches. None of the last four went into a fourth day.

England last played a Test there in 2009 when they lost in three days to the Australians but won a decider to claim the Ashes at The Oval the following week. This time they have to reverse the process.

Recent beatings... And how Strauss's men responded in style

1. England v Australia, 2009

Crushed in three days in Leeds after being skittled for 102 by a Peter Siddle-inspired Australia, it looked like the Ashes were up the Aire. But England rolled up at The Oval, where Jonathan Trott scored a debut hundred, and won by 197 runs.

2. England v Pakistan, 2010

When Pakistan fought their way back at The Oval with a four-wicket win and then reduced England to 101 for 7 at Lord's, the series looked set for a draw. But Stuart Broad had his finest batting hour, the spot-fixing scandal broke and merciless England won by an innings and 225.

3. Australia v England, 2010

England were feeling terribly pleased having gone 1-0 up, but when Mitchell Johnson blew them away on the Fremantle Doctor in Perth it again seemed Australia were back. Strauss and his team responded with a clinical display in Melbourne, winning by an innings and 157.

4. Sri Lanka v England, 2012

Humiliated yet again by spin in Galle, it looked bad for England. But Kevin Pietersen played one of his great innings in Colombo, buying England time to complete a series-levelling victory by eight wickets.

Stephen Brenkley

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