With the Ashes to play for, England arrive at The Oval this week in a wonderful position. It may not have seemed so in recent days when it has been possible to believe that the Ashes disappeared down the Murray-Darling at least a month ago, never to return.
England were as staggeringly bad in Leeds as Australia were predictably efficient. With a 1-0 lead and the prize nominally five days away, they froze, utterly confusing their role in the leporidae family, acting like rabbits in headlights instead of pulling them out of the hat.
The upshot is that it is now 1-1. Opprobrium has been heaped on the team, and the selectors have been offered advice from all quarters about what they should do. The raging debate has been conducted in an air of pessimism, the humour of the gallows because that is where English cricket has spent most of its time heading and this is no different.
But if England do nothing else in the days before the Fifth npower Test which begins on Thursday, they would do well to keep reminding themselves that the great prize is still on offer. That in itself is something they might have settled for at the start of the summer.
It did not happen throughout the 1960s, the 1970s or between 1989 and 2005. By the time the sides reached The Oval the destination of the Ashes had been decided. This is the eighth occasion since the teams began playing rubbers of at least five matches in 1899 that the last match at The Oval has taken on the guise of a final tie. England have prevailed on five of the previous occasions – three times when it was level – and Australia twice, in 1930 and 1934 when in both summers Don Bradman seemed to have decided that enough was quite enough.
The selectors met at Trent Bridge on Friday, the fruits of their discussions will be known this morning. They will award a Test cap to Jonathan Trott, who will take the place of Ravi Bopara. This is a fiddly sort of selection not only because it will entail asking Ian Bell, who made eight and three in Leeds, to move up to No 3, where he has been singularly unsuccessful.
To invite a player to make his Test debut in the match which will decide the Ashes does not speak wholeheartedly of planning designed to make the England team peak at the perfect time each four years when the Ashes are at stake, rather as an Olympic athlete must. It is not the selectors' fault exactly that the batting was so lamentable in Leeds, but then they did pick the team.
Trott is having a splendid season and in making his fourth Championship century on Thursday kept himself ahead of other candidates such as Robert Key and Mark Ramprakash, whose mooted participation was one of the most alluring of silly-season stories. Fun, but stuff and nonsense. Key, however, can consider himself unlucky. Trott's background as a South African is not ideal – although his temperament is said to be rock solid – and that the selectors in their hour of need have apparently turned to a player who learned his cricket in another country is hardly a ringing endorsement of the English system and the products of it.
Trott, 28, has served his time in this country; Key, if he is indeed overlooked, can get on with his county career. Australia will relish Trott as an adversary in English colours and he will be given a warm welcome by the tourists on Thursday. Other batsmen have made their debut in the Oval Test against Australia – Paul Parker in 1981, John Stephenson in 1989, and they never played again – but not with the Ashes still to play for.
England can be expected to name a squad of 14 which includes two spinners, thus neatly bookending the series. The form of neither Graeme Swann nor Monty Panesar, his probable sidekick, is especially uplifting. Swann has bowled the occasional fizzer but too often he has been as fizzy as lemonade left out in the sun with the top off.
Panesar's form for Northamptonshire has been troubling. In nine matches this summer he has taken 10 wickets for 717 runs. The odd player with a seasonal bowling average of 71 might have been picked for England in a decisive Test match but all of them will have been batsmen. Of course, it may be that the big stage is what Panesar has been missing.
Spinners have taken 33 of the 85 wickets to have fallen to bowlers at The Oval in first-class matches this summer, but expensively. All four matches have been drawn and scores in the last two included 620 for 7, 593 for 5 and 608 for 4.
The hoopla surrounding selection has deflected the focus – and thank the Lord for that sir – from Andrew Flintoff's knee. If the medical team is correct in their prognosis, he will be fit enough to get through the last five days of his Test career, though it is certain that the swelling will recur as the match wears on. Likewise Jimmy Anderson's hamstring has responded well to physiotherapy and he bowled on Friday without anxiety. England will pick five bowlers and probably decide between Stephen Harmison and Graham Onions.
Australia look in good order, as they should. In the series so far, they have five of the top six leading run-scorers, four of the top six wicket-takers, including the top three, the top four catchers and their main wicketkeeper who missed one of the matches has most catches. But the key fact is that the series is level as it was in 1926 and 1953 when England needed to win to take the trophy from Australia and did so. All to play for: reputations, careers, the Ashes. What larks.
The big decisions
Bopara or no Bopara? Were he to play at No 3, the Australian attack would turn into a bunch of ravenous dogs as soon as he hit the crease. For individual and team, it would be raving to pick Ravi. A Test career still awaits but asking him to continue it now, given his jittery form and the soft manner of his dismissals, would be to invite disaster.
So is Ramprakash the answer?
There is a school of thought suggesting that, seven years and a 'Strictly Come Dancing' victory since he last played, Ramps is now the complete Test batsman. Maybe, but those advocating his romantic recall should remember that Arlene Phillips has nothing on the likes of Ben Hilfenhaus and an on-song Mitchell Johnson in the roughing-up stakes.
Then what's to be done?
The selectors will almost certainly plump for the middle-order batting of Jonathan Trott, of Warwickshire via the South African Cape – which seemed to be confirmed yesterday when he was pulled out of the Lions match at Canterbury. A Test debut in such a high-profile match with the Ashes at stake is unprecedented. It will necessitate moving Ian Bell to three and ignoring Kent's Robert Key. If it goes ahead and does not work, the selectors' heads should be sought. Of course if it works, the gang of four will henceforth be known as the Four Wise Men.
What about the pitch?
Word from The Oval is that it will be a typical belter, which means full of runs and a potential draw. This is not quite what is required. Bill Gordon is a top groundsman, a true artist, but all eggs should be shoved into a result basket. And may the best team win.
Isn't the bowling a worry?
In the understandable rush to condemn the batsmanship, the craft of England's bowlers has been forgotten. They have looked, in every sense, none too clever. At present they need both Andrew Flintoff and conditions in their favour – in which case Jimmy Anderson can still bring home the little urn, but only assuming that Mitchell Johnson looks a stiff again.
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