England have five days to find a team to save the Ashes. After plunging to defeat yesterday against Australia by an innings and 80 runs, one of their most ignominious displays in the long history of this particular contest, it seems clear that changes must be made for the deciding match at The Oval next week.
Although the tourists have merely drawn level at 1-1 in the 2009 series, the damage they inflicted on the home side in Leeds in the fourth npower Test exposed a multitude of shortcomings. In the immediate aftermath of the reversal both the England captain, Andrew Strauss, and the coach, Andy Flower, insisted that there had to be calm reflection before making any decisions on the team, which will be picked on Saturday. "When we arrive at The Oval next Thursday what's gone counts for nothing," Strauss said. "It's 1-1 in the series and winner takes all. You need 11 guys to stand up and want it enough, be desperate enough to win and if you get that you have a good chance of winning."
While England were spineless, Australia were ruthless, which delighted their captain, Ricky Ponting. "You can't ask for anything more," the captain said. "We couldn't have done anything better. We've had an unbelievably good game and almost every chance that was created was taken."
At least England gave a packed Headingley something to cheer on the third morning as an improbable eighth-wicket partnership between Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann yielded 108 runs from 80 balls. But their cavalier strokeplay, with nothing by then to lose, could not disguise what had gone before.
From the first ball of a match in which England could have won the Ashes, they were simply not up to scratch against an Australia side which had peaked perfectly. Panic and freneticism infused their play throughout. The batsmen played with the air of condemned men and the bowlers might as well have hanged themselves.
The middle order is the most pressing concern for the selectors and every England cricket fan. With Kevin Pietersen out of the team it has taken on a dangerously brittle look. If it was porcelain it would break into a thousand pieces if someone simply breathed over it.
Numbers three, four and five contributed a total of 16 runs for six times out at Headingley. Small wonder there are calls for sweeping change, with Ravi Bopara, who has scored 105 runs in four matches, and Ian Bell, 64 in two, most at risk. As ever the fitness of Andrew Flintoff will be crucial to the balance and he sees a specialist today. Mark Ramprakash and Rob Key are being mentioned as possible replacements. Jonathan Trott, the South African who was called up to the Leeds squad, is bound to be seriously considered, though he can hardly be considered at No 3.
"We mustn't get carried away," Strauss said. "If you're thinking about wholesale changes I would be very resistant to that but we have to make a judgement call." After the events of the three days in Leeds, nobody would be confident that the call would be the right one.