The responsibilities of the England team over the next five days run deeper than attempting to level a Test series in which they have consistently been second best. The performance of Michael Vaughan's side in today's vital fifth Test against South Africa here will not only define England's summer but also the reputation of their new captain.
Should England, following reassuring victories in this season's two one-day tournaments and a comfortable 2-0 Test series win over Zimbabwe, manage to win here and draw level, 2003 would be looked on as a period where they successfully introduced a new leader. If England, however, were to slip to a 3-1 defeat, questions concerning Vaughan's ability to captain would gather momentum as quickly as those who demand a change in the structure of county cricket.
Since being thrown the second toughest job in British sport, Vaughan has had little chance to mould this side. After falling to a heavy defeat at Lord's in his first Test in charge, the Lancastrian has constantly been playing catch-up. Victory at Trent Bridge gave the 28-year-old captain a taste of the good life but another thrashing at Headingley made him fully aware of the pressures of this job.
Vaughan has been unfortunate that his adversary, Graeme Smith, is one of the more impressive young cricketers the modern game has seen. On and off the field, South Africa's 22-year-old leader has imposed himself on his own side and his opponents.
In comparison, Vaughan's more laid-back style of leadership has at times looked indecisive. On the fourth morning at Headingley, when the game was there to be won for the fourth time, Vaughan was let down by his bowlers but he was also guilty of allowing his team to drift into a position from where they were never going to win.
The immediate reputation of Vaughan and England rests in the hands of the bowlers and their ability to take 20 South African wickets on a flat Oval pitch. The omens are not good. On similar surfaces at Edgbaston and Lord's the tourists amassed 1,276 runs for the loss of only 12 wickets.
The decision of the selectors to allow Gareth Batty, England's second spinner, to return to play for Worcestershire suggests they do not feel this pitch will offer slow bowlers the encouragement of years gone by. The selectors will have also been influenced by the performance of England's spinners at this ground over the past five years.
In the five Test matches England have played in south London since Philip Tufnell's match-winning performance against Australia in 1997 Ashley Giles, Tufnell and Ian Salisbury have taken just nine wickets at the cost of 50 runs each. These figures, when compared to the 41 wickets taken by the tourists' slow bowlers, explain why England have won only one game here since 1997.
Tufnell's heroics, and those of Devon Malcolm, who took 9 for 57 against the same opposition in 1994, do give England hope because The Oval is a ground where someone has managed to produce something special. However, it is hard to see who out of James Anderson, Stephen Harmison, Martin Bicknell, Andrew Flintoff and Giles, the five bowlers expected to play, will fill the role of their predecessors.
It seems hard to ask Anderson, the youngest member of the attack, to shoulder this responsibility but as the only bowler on show to have looked capable of winning a Test for England - no bowler other than Giles, who took 5 for 67 in Ahmedabad 22 months ago, has taken a five-wicket haul for England - the 21-year-old has to push a few more miles out of his tired body.
"Ideally, we would have liked to have given Jimmy [Anderson] a break at some stage during the summer," Vaughan said. "But unfortunately injuries have not given us the opportunity to rest him. After a week off working with Mike Watkinson, the Lancashire coach, he seems refreshed. Troy Cooley [the bowling coach] has been working with him and said he is bowling better than at any time in the last two months.
"He may have had a bad game at Headingley, but he is the sort of character who can come out this week and take six or seven wickets."
South Africa have no such worries. The tourists will wait until this morning to decide on their final XI, but even if Paul Adams fails to prove his fitness, after being struck on the left shoulder during practice, they will field their strongest side of the summer. Shaun Pollock, who missed the Headingley Test to attend the birth of his daughter in Durban, returns and needs only one wicket to become the 19th bowler to take 300 Test wickets.
"We are ready to make history," said Smith on the eve of a match that could see South Africa win their first Test series in England since re-admission, "but are expecting England to bounce back. In Alec Stewart they have someone who will be desperate to prove something in his last Test and Graham Thorpe who will be aiming to do the same."Reuse content