Test countdown: The Key question needs a long-term answer now

Choice of the final batsman will be crucial to the summer campaigns
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All the candidates have now stated their cases. Shortly, the selectors must decide. They are spoiled for choice, which is at once a good thing and a bad thing. It would be handy if they got it right immediately for the two Tests against Bangladesh, because getting it wrong would require a regrouping that could be ill-afforded against Australia come July.

All the candidates have now stated their cases. Shortly, the selectors must decide. They are spoiled for choice, which is at once a good thing and a bad thing. It would be handy if they got it right immediately for the two Tests against Bangladesh, because getting it wrong would require a regrouping that could be ill-afforded against Australia come July.

It is stretching a point to suggest that the Ashes themselves are at stake, but not by much. The conundrum concerns the final place in England's batting order. The panel have to identify both the man and the number at which he should go in.

It is safe to say five of the top six are shoo-ins: Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Strauss, Michael Vaughan, Graham Thorpe and Andrew Flintoff, whatever their mixed returns so far. Those vying for the remaining place, on the other hand, have all found form.

This list most obviously contains Robert Key, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen. Mark Butcher's troublesome wrist injury means that he cannot be considered for the early Tests, and if he is recalled later, for all his qualities, it would only be because England are in real trouble.

Key is the man in possession, having batted at No 3 in the last three matches; Bell is the class act who everybody agrees has a big future; and Pietersen is the name on everybody's lips because of his monstrous hitting in the one-day matches against South Africa last winter.

There is another fringe candidate in Paul Collingwood, who will not start but should not be ruled out in any circumstances because his attitude has constantly impressed the England coach, Duncan Fletcher. Do not forget that Collingwood was in both touring parties last winter.

The increasing likelihood is that Key will retain his place, almost being given the oppor-tunity to fail. Fletcher has been to see him for words of reassurance, and the 164 he made for Kent on Thursday was, as they say, timely in every sense.

Nobody has quite guaranteed Key his spot, but the signs are clear. What the selectors have to do is decide whether Key is truly their man for the long term. If he is, then stick with him. If he is not, then give him the bad news now.

Mike Gatting, the last man to lead England to Ashes triumph, 19 years ago, and once a selector, also had initial trouble bedding in as an established Test batsman. "Bell looked the part when he got his 70 against West Indies at The Oval last summer," said Gatting. "He looked composed at the crease and clearly has a future. But Key has the place, and he's a gritty customer. I can see a place for both of them eventually.

"I think there is a case for moving Michael Vaughan up the order again to No 3, with Key at four. Maybe Bell and Key would be at four and five eventually. I think Pietersen, for all his fantastic runs in the winter, will have to wait."

Like many other judges, Gatting has concerns about Vaughan's position in the order, and suggested that one way round it in the medium term would be to move Marcus Trescothick down the order. "That won't be done immediately, but I know it's been talked about in the past, because Trescothick plays spin well early on, which a lot don't," Gatting said. "But for now, I'd move Vaughan to three."

Allan Lamb, a former colleague of Gatting's in England's middle order, also suggested Vaughan should bat at three, and thought the choice was between Bell and Key. "I've seen more of Key, and though he's vulnerable he certainly hits it well," he said. The consensus is that Key has technical flaws - chiefly playing around his front pad - which make him susceptible early. He can also play careless shots when set.

But he is also a tough customer and a phlegmatic man, who impresses so much because he has time to play. Nothing is rushed, little is forced. The fact that he made a substantial score against Jonathan Lewis of Gloucestershire is also telling. Lewis himself is on the cusp of selection for England, and especially effective at this time in the season.

"He can mix it up and turn to swing as well, so it means you have to keep thinking," said Key, who is not a man given to overestimating himself. "He was a real handful.

"Whenever you play or are looking to play for England it is so important to feel in decent nick, and if you are feeling at all out of touch - as I did last week - it makes it really hard."

Bell was also mightily impressive in the week, with the second double hundred of his career. The sense of anticipation now is palpable, and although his captain at Warwickshire, Nick Knight, has been ever ready to throw a protective arm around him to prevent premature selection, even he might begin to agree that Bell is ready.

"I just think he's got a little more learning to do in terms of the wider cricketing issues," Knight said recently. "If he got picked now, I think he might do well, but I want him to be successful for England for the rest of his career, and when he goes off I don't want to see him back at this club."

Which leaves Pietersen, who will definitely blaze away. After his three breathtaking centuries in the South African one-day series, even the sober Fletcher was moved to almost outlandish praise. "For an individual to bat like that, you can't ignore him, he's got to come into the equation."

And then there is Collingwood, who keeps getting so close only to see others overtake him. To renew his claim he scored a much-praised century for Durham on a difficult pitch at the Riverside 10 days ago. "It has been a burning ambition of mine to play against Australia in the Ashes," he said. "Nobody could want it more, and all I can do is get my game in order."

These are problems that selectors pray for. They can earn their mileage expenses. They can only hope that their men are not peaking too soon.

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