Thorpe solves a problem but there are too many others

It was not only the selection of their team that England postponed at the 11th hour on Friday. There was the unmistakeable sense that they were also delaying the inevitable.

It was not only the selection of their team that England postponed at the 11th hour on Friday. There was the unmistakeable sense that they were also delaying the inevitable.

Any side that England picked were certain to have their hands full against a rampant South Africa. But a group of men who can be pretty sure that they were not really wanted will have to dig deeper than the thickness of coach Duncan Fletcher's skin to level the npower Test series. It looks distinctly like cock-a-hoop versus cock-up.

The unexpected email came through soon after 10am on Friday, hard on the heels of the unanticipated text message, demonstrating that in one respect, at least, English cricket has indubitably kept pace with the modern world. Both landed minutes before the squad for the final Test of the summer, which begins at The Oval on Thursday, was due to be named.

The bulletins said that the names would not be announced for another 48 hours - i.e. this morning. The selectors needed more time to weigh their options. Presumably this was to give them a chance to find another (fit) seam bowler and take to 16 the number used since the start of the Ashes series nine months and 11 Tests ago; or to allow Fletcher a belated but rare opportunity to watch some county cricket on Friday; or in the hope that Wilson of the Wizard would leave his eyrie in the North Yorkshire dales to bowl South Africa to defeat.

Such is the confusion that England have allowed themselves to get into, so insipid was their exhibition at Headingley in the Fourth Test, that nothing should be ruled out, although Wilson has not yet attended the National Academy. The late abandonment of the naming of the squad, for whatever reason, merely conveyed the impression that England do not have a clue about what to do or where to turn.

This is hardly the baptism that Michael Vaughan craved when he prematurely assumed the captaincy from Nasser Hussain last month. He has now played three, won one, lost two, in Tests, and his calm and unflappable exterior has been panned as symbolising a man of inaction and indecision.

Whoever supposes that the captain has to jump up and down every five minutes in between bawling out his bowlers while tearing his hair out, and that Vaughan would be a better captain if he did so, should join St Vitus's Dance Anonymous.

England batted badly at Headingley, but that could not conceal the truth that a captain is only as good as his bowlers. England's were awful. So, therefore, was the captain. Vaughan's mistake, England's mistake, was in picking five seamers: young, old and indifferent. It was as if they could not trust any one of them to do the job. Oh my Shackleton and Cartwright of long ago.

There are certain to be a least two changes to the team who succumbed so ineptly in Leeds. Hussain will not play because of the broken toe he sustained at Headingley, and James Kirtley, the seam bowler, is suffering from shin splints. In addition, there will be a spin bowler in the team for The Oval. If England had sufficient exponents worthy of the name, there would likely be two.

The smart money on the batting spot is on recalling Graham Thorpe. His experience and class, allied to his renewed desire and adequate form, are seen to be compelling reasons for his inclusion, though they have not been persuasive reasons in the six Tests so far this summer. It also assists his cause that there is not a young middle-order batsman worth the punt, or at least not one the selectors would seem to have any reasonable hope of identifying. The panel have had three tries this season at filling the troublesome No 5 position, and come up with Robert Key, Anthony McGrath and Ed Smith. Between them they have contributed one half-century in nine innings and average 16.

Smith deserves another bash, although defects in method that have been evident to the layman, albeit on substandard pitches, should surely have jumped up and hit a selector between the eyes with the force of a Freddie Flintoff pull. The state of English batsmanship is grim, but that is where selectors come in.

There will be a temptation to faff about with the order, either by moving Marcus Trescothick down it, or Alec Stewart up it. Poor Trescothick has found out in the past year that Test cricket is tough after all. It is 24 innings since his last Test hundred, and although he has still averaged 37 in that time, his flirtations with the new ball outside off would make a gigolo in a nightclub proud.

If Trescothick were to drop down, his opening berth would go to Andrew Strauss, the reliable and well-appointed Middlesex captain. Strauss's assiduous method was noticed some time ago, but it may not be the time to blood a new player, no matter what his composure. "Here's your new cap, son, now go out and save us a Test series." They should stay with Trescothick for now.

The case of Stewart is being investigated for the last time. He will play his 133rd and farewell Test, but the arguments have remained the same: where should he bat, should he play? The selectors will rightly resist any move to ask him to bat a place or two higher up, as they have wrongly resisted the temptation to drop him.

In prolonging his career, England have failed in their duty to appoint a successor. The only possible vindication for continuing to pick him would have come if they had won the series, with Stewart being a key contributor. They have not and he has not. The whole sorry episode will come to blight this panel's every decision from here on.

Unremarkable though the batting has been, England will only square this series and prevent South Africa's first series victory in this country since 1965 if they take 20 wickets. The unprofessional manner in which they bowled in the last match suggests this will be impossible. The ailing limbs of many bowlers are additional burdens.

England want to pick Richard Johnson, a hero against Zimbabwe earlier in the summer, though that should not be held against him. But the word is that Johnson would struggle to survive for five days. Martin Bicknell, recalled at Leeds after 10 years, has a tweaked hamstring, but there really can be no mileage in picking him again.

Kabir Ali, 12 years younger than Bicknell, does not apparently have the trust of the team. Steve Harmison (five wickets in three matches in the series at 60 runs each) will be recalled. It is a mess. But they can delay it no longer. Call for Wilson of the Wizard.

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